Tuesday 9 September 2014

Movie Review: A Separation (2011)

A social drama from Iran about the cascading consequences of individual decisions, A Separation is an impressive triumph, teasing perceptive observations of the human condition from the simple story of a failing marriage.

The marriage of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a middle class couple in Tehran, is strained beyond repair. She wants to leave Iran; he feels the need to stay and look after his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When the judge does not grant them a divorce, they separate. Simin moves in with her mom, and Nader is left to care for his father and the couple's 11 year old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi).

Nader hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to help with his father during the day. Razieh is poor, has a young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), is pregnant with another child, and is married to the combustible Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who owes a lot of money to creditors. Razieh finds the task of caring for Nader's father too much for her, and the pay too low to make it worth her while. But before she can quit, an unexpected crisis causes an angry confrontation between Nader and Razieh, and the physical altercation results in escalating personal, financial and emotional damage to two families.

Directed, produced and written by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation is about the ripple effects of personal decisions spreading rapidly through the greater social pond. Simin makes the choice to leave her husband, daughter and father in law; Nader chooses to hire an ill-equipped and unwilling Razieh to help out with his father. She in turn decides to try and juggle caring for the old man while struggling with her pregnancy and keeping her work a secret from her husband. Before long, Nader and Hodjat are locked in an ugly struggle for pride, for the truth, and for money. It's a dispute that neither man asked for, and with potentially life-altering consequences, all stemming from an unrelated marital squabble.

The quirky realities of Iran's culture embellish the film, and contribute to the mounting misunderstandings. Simin and Nader need the permission of a judge to divorce. With Nader non-committal either way, the judge does not grant it. Razieh does not want Hodjat to know that she is caring for a man all day, despite Nader's father being a helpless sick man. She also needs to check with the country's religious hot-line prior to cleaning up the old man after he wets himself. And Razieh does not tell Nader that she is pregnant, hiding her condition under the flowing chador, to safeguard a job that she decides is anyway not for her.

And despite Iran being superficially a male-dominated society, it is Simin and Razieh, both driven by guilt and empathy and not nearly as saddled by ego as their husbands, who finally take the lead in trying to find honest solutions as events cascade towards familial ruin.

Farhadi also uses his story to comment on the perceived injustices imparted on the lower classes, as Hodjat feels the justice system tilted in favour of the middle class, Hodjat's word and his wife's honour seemingly not quite as important as Nader's version of the story. Witnesses are quick to line up and corroborate Nader, and Hodjat's temper is used against him to insinuate complicity in harming his family.

Even more thought provoking is Farhadi's unblinking view of the children dragged into the conflicts of their parents. Termeh and Somayeh are observant witnesses to the events around them, and Termeh becomes an essential interrogator of her father as Nader stretches the truth to try and extricate himself from the unfolding predicament. In desperation Nader turns the guilt tables onto his precocious daughter and places her squarely in front of an adult dilemma, linking his questionable actions on his need to care for her. At an early age, Termeh is going to have to decide between family and fairness.

Farhadi's directorial style is low-key with a documentary feel, his cameras capturing everyday events transforming into swirling dramas at Nader's unassuming apartment and at the chaotic government offices where grievances are traded and sweaty magistrates patiently separate the half-truths from the exaggerations. The performances are stunning in their normalcy, Peyman Moaadi as Nader and Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat in particular bringing to life two unassuming men from opposite sides of town locked into a tempest that could claim both their futures.

There are no heroes and no villains in A Separation, no glamour, no pathos, and no crescendos of emotions or climaxes of any kind. This is a story about everyday people, all of them flawed but all of them also essentially just decent humans doing the best that they can. The film works brilliantly as a mirror to the men, women, children, and the elderly who share the seemingly simple but actually complex common characteristic of assembling the puzzle called life.

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