Around the World: A Separation

looks at the Oscar award-winning Iranian drama of the difficulties surrounding a failing relationship

Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts. 

Image: Sony Pictures Classics

One of the most fascinating things about Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and there are many of them, is its title. Approaching the film, it would be reasonable to expect a drama focused solely on the divorce between lead characters Nader and Simin, with their poor daughter Termeh stuck in the middle. What you get, however is a film that is as much about duty, justice and power as it is about love and divorce.

Set in contemporary Iran, the film begins with Nader and Simin explaining their situation to a judge, and therefore, to us. Simply put, Simin wants to move abroad with their daughter, but Nader refuses because he wants to continue looking after his ailing father who is heavily afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. It is not a cheery way to set up the film, and believe me it gets no happier from here on in. Yet, however authentically traumatic A Separation becomes, it is never anything less than hugely compelling.

What is so superb about Farhadi’s work here is the variety of pains and struggles the characters endure that are all linked by the same overarching ideas: morality and duty. The scenes between Nader and his father are never overplayed, but heart-rending in a way that is strongly reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour. Most importantly, they allow us to sympathise deeply with Nader and his struggles. It is this sympathy, created too by well-judged pacing that allows us to inhabit Nader’s world and mindset, that makes later scenes, where Nader is perhaps in the wrong, filled with clashing ethical and emotional loyalties for the viewer.

Despite Nader being the main focus of the film for much of its run-time, every character gets the same sympathetic treatment as him. The performances are uniformly excellent, meaning every character is played with a genuine heart that forces us to feel tied to everyone’s struggles. Take Sareh Bayat as Razieh, for example. Razieh ends up in a bitter dispute with Nader after she is hired to look after his father. We have sympathised with Nader from the start, but Farhadi and Bayat refuse to let Razieh become the enemy because the weight of her poverty and religious/moral turmoil is so convincingly played that all we can really do is look upon the whole situation and feel deep pity for everyone involved.

A Separation as a whole can be viewed as a fiendish moral puzzle. The brilliance of it is that we feel genuinely left to our own devices to solve it; we may take sides, but we do it independently and with our own moral compass, because every character has enough humanity and compassion to be a fully-fledged and sympathetic person.

Having witnessed legal troubles, familial duty and the pains of old age, the film’s ending reminds us of how it started: with a separation. The plot of the film moves quite far away from Nader and Simin’s divorce, but everything is in some way a result of it. Naming his film A Separation means that Farhadi reminds us of this. The film is not so much about divorce but the ramifications of it. One of these ramifications is a lack of unity; almost every time we see them on screen they are shown in reverse shots, rather than together. A Separation is like eavesdropping on one long, gripping argument. It is an argument where we understand everybody’s personal tragedies, but the greatest tragedy is the impossibility of happiness for them all.