Film Review: A Separation * * * *
A sombre, moody, pleasingly complex drama from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation uses the marital problems of a middle-class Tehran couple as the starting point for a much wider debate.
As the film opens, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) have come before a magistrate to air their marital differences. Sick of life in Iran and looking for a better future abroad, Simin wanted to leave the country, but Nader is having none of it.
He cares for his elderly father, who lives with them and suffers so severely with Alzheimer's that he's a constant danger to himself. The strain of this has got to Simin, who fears for the well-being of their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But Nader is inflexible, and the couple have reached an impasse that has no solution other than separation.
When Simin leaves the house, Nader hires a local woman called Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father during the day. But Razieh is an unwitting agent of chaos, and after a tragic misunderstanding involving a push on the stairs of Simin's apartment building, Razieh loses her baby and her volatile husband enters the frame.
Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is a desperate man, mired in self-pity: he resents Nader's comparative wealth, and is desperate to find a scapegoat for his persistent bad luck. Accusing Nader of his unborn child's murder, he sets in train a messy court case that reveals more than he ever intended.
Hodjat is something of a zealot: the Koran is his constant companion, and he uses it to justify his every irrational whim.
Simin and Nader are far more urbane, even vaguely agnostic, and Farhadi very subtly teases out the struggle within Iranian society between dogmatic fundamentalism and a more complex, forgiving, pluralist approach.
A Separation also examines the disastrous mixing of justice and religion, and how mutually toxic blind faith and law-making are. At one point, when Razieh and Nader argue, she finishes the discussion by shaking an angry finger at heaven and pronouncing that "God is not happy". How can you deal rationally with that kind of stance?
But the director does more than merely discuss Iranian civics: his film is full of real, rounded characters, all of whom are deserving of some sympathy.
Simin, for instance, wants the best for her daughter; Nader initially seems intransigent, until you realise he hasn't the heart to abandon his poor, muddled father. Even Hodjat could claim he's only trying to fight for his family. But with those who claim to speak for God, compromise is rarely possible.
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