Sad realities of life in Iran
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
It's easy to throw around adjectives such as "taut" and "superbly crafted" and "riveting" when reviewing movies, but the Iranian film "A Separation" truly earns those praises, and more. As the latest example of Iranian realism at its most gripping, Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama takes hold from its first moments and doesn't let go even long after the lights have come on.
As "A Separation" opens, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) address the camera as a judge, a faceless bureaucrat, is adjudicating their pending divorce. Simin is seeking a divorce from Nader, who has refused to move out of Iran with her and their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (the filmmaker's daughter, Sarina). Nader wants to stay home to take care of his elderly father, who's suffering from Alzheimer's. When Simin's request for a divorce is refused and she leaves the house to stay with her parents, Nader hires a nurse named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father while he works.
But Razieh, it turns out, is an observant, orthodox Muslim whose religious strictures and patriarchal tradition are at odds with the demands of her new job. While Simin, Nader and Termeh confront (or avoid) the simmering anxieties of their family life, Razieh straddles her two worlds, of cultural differences and conflicting motivations that unexpectedly explode after an encounter between Nader and Razieh.
With irony worthy of O. Henry and a naturalistic, observant stance reminiscent of the searing Romanian drama "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days," Farhadi ratchets up the tensions and the stakes, constantly upping the emotional ante without resorting to manipulation or cheap plot twists. As a seamless, seemingly effortless document, "A Separation" doesn't resemble a film much as a slice of life caught on the fly, with all of the spontaneity, surprise and contradiction that real life entails.
Like such recent Iranian films as "No One Knows About Persian Cats" and "Good Bye" (which will screen Feb. 3 at the Freer Gallery's Iranian Film Festival), "A Separation" is part of a genre that might be called the "getting out" movie of modern-day Iran, whereby filmgoers see Iranians not as enemies or inscrutable exotics, but vibrant, cosmopolitan sophisticates eager to escape the country's totalitarian regime.
Unlike those films, "A Separation" goes even further in lifting up the many paradoxes of Iranian society, in which women are oppressed but also resourceful navigators of economic and political realities, and in which the religious bureaucracy is both punishing and risibly ineffectual.
Perhaps most gratifying, Farhadi declines to present Nader as the bad guy in a story that could easily be framed as a woman valiantly trying to save her daughter from a foreclosed future.
"A Separation" is certainly that, but it's also a moving portrait of filial devotion, and a father who wants to teach his daughter not to escape injustice but to stay and fight it (one of the film's most touching scenes involves Nader sending Termeh to demand change after paying for gas at a filling station).
Things are just as complex when the story comes to center on Razieh and Nader and a confrontation that, even when "A Separation" ends, remains ambiguous. Farhadi has made an absorbing, utterly of-the-moment movie that's confident enough to leave filmgoers without pat resolutions but with plenty of hauntingly provocative questions.
Contains mature thematic material. In Farsi with English subtitles.