Criticwire’s New Classic series examines films released in the last ten years posed to stand the test of time.
“My finding is that this is a small problem,” says the judge to Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married Iranian couple seeking divorce, as he denies their request in the opening scene of Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant drama “A Separation.” It’s this decision that unknowingly sets off a chain of events that not only create a series of larger problems but also throws everyone’s morality into question and souls into hazard. Initially about a family torn apart by conflicting opinions about their daughter’s well-being, “A Separation” eventually encompasses thornier and more devastating questions about humanity: What value does truth have if it cannot rectify lost lives or mend damaged families? What are the limitations of faith when intertwined with the law? At what age is it acceptable for a child to accept the moral burdens of their parents? When does a child become an adult? Farhadi never directly poses these questions to the audience and rarely do his characters ask them of each other, but they thrum underneath the narrative, refusing to be ignored by those entangled in webs of their own making.
Simply put, Farhadi is one of the greatest living screenwriters currently working, and it’s because of his facility with Chekovian narratives that weighty moral questions refract through the decisions his characters make. After Simin leaves Nader for her parent’s place, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant, deeply religious woman, to help look after his Alzheimer’s afflicted father. When she finds the strain of the work to be too much, she advises Nader to hire her hot-headed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) instead, but Hodjat doesn’t know that Razieh took the job without consulting her. When Hodjat is thrown in jail by his creditors, Razieh returns to work yet again, but one day, she leaves Nader’s father locked up in his room and tied to the bed so she can go to the doctor. Furious at Razieh for her irresponsibility after discovering his father unconscious on the floor, Nader shoves her out of his house where she accidentally falls on the stairs. Soon after, Razieh miscarries and Hodjat, Nader, Simin, their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and her tutor (Merila Zare’i) are roped in a battle filled with convenient omissions, half-truths, and subjective opinions.
Though Farhadi’s ability to thread deeply humanistic ideas into a tight narrative is unparalleled, his palpable sense of empathy for everyone and their own unique situations arguably shines even brighter. Razieh may have been careless with Nader’s father, but her reason for leaving was justified. Nader may have been justified in his anger with Razieh, but his violence against her was unjust. Meanwhile, Hodjat’s depression and professional bad luck makes him ill-tempered and impulsive as he begs an indifferent legal system to understand their charges of murder against Nader, and Simin simply wants to protect her daughter’s well-being as she slowly becomes a part of her parents’ mistakes. These positions coupled with everyone’s good intentions (at least in the moment) renders the entire battle a knotty mess only made knottier when even more revelations come out and lies are reveled. There’s a reason why Farhadi’s name is constantly placed alongside great dramatists like Ibsen and O’Neill: They all understand that great drama comes from grounded, yet conflicting human choices, impeded individual desires, and casual misunderstandings. By the end of the film, everyone is tainted by the knowledge of their actions, emotionally and physically separated from each other even when they’re in the same room, but Farhadi never demonizes his characters by dividing them into heroes and villains; they’re just people in a mess, worthy of our sympathy all the same. Though the entire cast of “A Separation” excels in their task of instilling humanity into their characters, especially Farhadi’s daughter who turns a relatively small, but crucial role into a devastating tour-de-force of passive desperation, it’s Farhadi himself who lays that foundation on the page, perceptively understanding why people manipulate others, lie when provoked, and conveniently shift responsibilities onto loved ones. “A Separation” may be a distinctly Iranian drama, but the feelings it evokes are not bounded by geography.