The ties that bind

‘A Separation’ looks at a troubled family in Iran.

A Separation film 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
A Separation film 390
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s very difficult to watch Asghar Farhadi’s internationally acclaimed film A Separation without thinking about the country in which it takes place, Iran. Unlike many Iranian films in the past, it doesn’t present a sanitized version of the country, in which cute kids fight poverty and adversity. A Separation is a complex story that deals with universal problems such as marital conflict, caring for the elderly and class struggles. It has received a huge number of awards, including this year’s Golden Globe award and five awards at the Berlin Film Festival, including the top honor. Now it is one of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, along with Joseph Cedar’s Footnote. It has also received a second Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay, a rare distinction for a Foreign Language nominee.
While all that is interesting, is it worth seeing? It’s an odd film in that it is both slow paced but has a great deal of plot. While there is suspense as the twisty plot unfolds, I found it strangely uninvolving.
There wasn’t any character I felt truly interested or invested in. I couldn’t help wondering if it has won some of the acclaim due partly to curiosity about Iran and a desire to reward a filmmaker who portrays the human side of the country, behind the headlines.
The film is set in Tehran, and I was struck throughout, as I always am during Iranian films, by how similar that city looks to Jerusalem.
It shouldn’t be surprising, since much of both cities were developed in the 1960s and ’70s, but it is disconcerting.
It starts out with a woman applying to divorce her husband.
Simin (Laila Hatami) wants the divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) because she wants to leave the country with their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). When she tells the judge she has no other problems with her husband other than his refusal to go abroad, the judge says that they should remain separated and try to work things out. This doesn’t seem as if it will be simple.
Nader refuses to consider moving because he is responsible for the care of his senile father, who lives with them. Simin packs a suitcase and storms out to her mother’s apartment. Nader hurriedly hires a woman to care for his father. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) isn’t sure she really can do the job. A very poor woman, she seems to have no experience at all in caring for the sick and elderly, and she complains that it’s a long trip for her. She has to bring her young daughter with her each day. But Nader is desperate and pressures her, and it is this part of his dilemma that makes him the most sympathetic. But when he returns to find his father alone, tied to his bed and without the oxygen he needs, Nader is understandably upset. Finding some money missing, he angrily fires Razieh and when, pleading, she tries to get back into the apartment, he gives her a shove. This sends her flying down a flight of stairs and, as it turns out, to emergency surgery in a hospital after she miscarries. Did Nader know she was pregnant? He says he had no idea, but is he telling the truth? Her hot-headed and possibly mentally ill husband presses charges against Nader, and he faces years in jail if convicted of causing the death of the child she carried.
That’s the basic story, and although at times I was gripped by it, by and large it was a dull film, in spite of strong performances by the entire cast. I found myself wondering if it was meant to be some kind of metaphor for contemporary Iran. A woman, seeking freedom abroad, may represent Iranians who flee to the West rather than staying to make the changes they want at home. Is the elderly father who has become demented a symbol of a government that holds people back? The pregnant, religiously observant caretaker may be the Iranian people, torn between irrational impulses (her husband in the film, religious fundamentalists in real life) and lack of any other viable options. It’s impossible to know if this is what Farhadi intends, but it’s difficult not to think about all these questions. In the end, if I had been more captivated by the film, I would have thought about its metaphorical implications less.