So many movies let their characters off easy. They occupy universes of absurd moral clarity; good and bad, black and white. In contrast, nothing in the fascinating new Iranian movie “A Separation” is that simple. Every decision its characters are forced to make — and they’re forced to make a lot of them — is a difficult one. It’s not even a simple film to describe. Is it a legal thriller? A family drama? A character study? It’s all of those things and more.
The moral dilemmas begin in the very first scene, when married couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Naadi) appear in Islamic court. Simin wants to leave the country with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and find a better life elsewhere. Nader prefers to stay, particularly because his father has advanced Alzheimer’s and needs constant care. So Simin asks for a divorce. Nader is willing to grant it, but he refuses to let Termeh leave as well. Who is right here? Who the hell knows.
Simin moves out and Nader is forced to hire a caretaker for his father on short notice. He winds up with Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devoutly religious woman. For Razieh, the commute to this job is too long and the pay is too low. But her husband is unemployed and owes some men money so she takes the position anyway. On her first day, Nader’s father wets himself, which forces Razieh to disrobe and clean him, a big no-no for a married Islamic woman. She wants to quit, but again, she needs the work. What should she do? Who the hell knows.
There are enough rock-and-a-hard-place choices in these early scenes to fill a month of Hollywood movies. But these early scenes are just the overture to writer/director Ashgar Farhadi‘s cinematic symphony of ethical complexity. One day, there is an accident at Nader’s home while Razieh is out. Is she to blame? Later Nader confronts Razieh and the two get into an argument. She falls and there are medical complications. Is he to blame? In a sense, the film is a modern day “Rashomon.” All these people witnessed this event, but no one can agree on exactly what happened. We were there too, and we might not agree either.
The acting is stunning, the screenplay is brilliant, and, as evidenced by the still above, Farhadi finds brilliant ways to visualize the growing rifts between all his various characters. Many later scenes take place back in Islamic court, a riveting place where there are no juries, trials sort of resemble high school debates, and the rule of law often seems to create more ambiguity, not less. Will you agree with the court’s ultimate decision? What do you think?
My advice would be to see “A Separation” as soon as you can, and with a big group of people. Just be prepared for a lot of different opinions after it’s over. Still that’s preferable to walking out of this movie with no one to talk to. That would not be easy.