“It’s a screenwriter’s film,” said a friend of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, a designation that is at once accurate and dismissive, on the nose and besides the point. Yes, the film, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin and received excellent reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival before its selection at NYFF, is extremely well-written, but the idea that its writerly qualities should preclude its recognition as vital cinema strikes me as pretty reductive. The film is superbly written, but it’s also smartly directed, insofar as there’s a continuity between its writer-director’s ideas and the visual language he uses to express them.
Take, for example, Farhadi’s staging of the first scene, which simultaneously anticipates other key sequences in the film while also standing alone, bracketed off from the rest of the action. We get a two-shot of the film’s major characters, Naader (Peyman Moaadi), a prosperous Tehranian bank teller in his mid-thirties, and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), seated side by side against a white wall. This beginning is an ending, of sorts: the couple is in front of a judge and trying to get a divorce. During this static, uninterrupted shot, the pair speak, first in turn, and then over one another, about the rationale for their separation to an unseen arbiter.
Simin desires the divorce because Naader will not give her permission to leave Iran, nor to take their eleven-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), with her to have a better future. His refusal to leave is bound up not in the consolidation of his authority but rather his responsibilities to his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who has moved into the family’s apartment. It’s simultaneously clear that Simin and Naader have mutual respect (“He is a good and decent man,” she says of her husband) and that their positions on this matter are completely intractable—stubborn pride masking the deep hurt of people who love one another. The direct address of this opening puts us in the same position as the magistrate, presenting us with two people and their respective lines of reasoning, and begging our observation and observance, if not our outright judgment. This is an apt overture for a film that is explicitly about how slippery the onus of interpretation can be—especially when all parties involved would seem to have a pretty good case. Read Adam Nayman’s review of A Separation.