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A Separation

There's no more sadly appropriate, self-defeating gesture in Asghar Farhadi's celebrated A Separation than that of Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) repeatedly striking himself.  Hodjat is, by his own admission, a hot-tempered man.  But at that moment of supreme frustration, he's also been unemployed for months, beseiged by creditors and his wife, Razieh (Sareh Bayat),  has recently lost their unborn child after a dispute with a man with whom she was working to bring some money into the household.

The separation of the film's title refers to that of Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami).  The couple have been married fourteen years when we first see them.  Prospects for a fifteenth year are not encouraging.  As A Separation begins, the two are in family court owing to Simin's petition for divorce.  She wants to leave Iran so their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) can grow up elsewhere.  "I don't want my child to grow up under these conditions," she says, before the judge's response  causes her to speak in more diplomatic terms about that state of Iranian society.  Simin is the least developed of the major characters in A Separation, or at times the least sympathetic.  But by the film's conclusion, one can't help but share her concern that the society we see in A Separation is a difficult place for most people to make a life.

For his part, Nader does not want to leave his homeland.  This seems partially a matter of pride of place, though mainly the tie he feels is to his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.  "He doesn't even know you're his son," says a frustrated Simin.  "But I know he is my father," responds Nader.  The judge does not grant the divorce to Simin.  The separation occurs as Simin moves out to take up residence with her parents, elsewhere in Tehran.  Termeh stays with her father.

The rancor of the estranged couple is merely the first in a series of scenes of jangled nerves in which no connection, no transaction seems to be easy, if possible at all.  Two movers struggle to carry a piano up a stairwell.  This, as it turns out, is the building in which Simin and Nader reside, at least for the moment.  It also turns out to be a stairwell in which negative energy will seem to fester like bacteria in a petri dish.  Simin meets the movers who complain they have been paid to carry the piano only two floors, not to the couple's second floor flat, which sits yet two flights higher.  Simin has to get money from a household stash to pay the movers to complete the job; this will prove a fateful action.  As Simin finally readies herself to leave, to the cold resignation of her husband and pained, disapproving glances of Termeh observed from a distance, the woebegone figure of Razieh arrives, answering a call for help at the house.  She's thrilled with neither the salary offered to work in the home and look after Nader's father, nor with the long days that will be entailed by the commute from the poorer district of the city in which she lives.  But she warily agrees to give the job a try.    

Razieh's misgivings about her new job are immediately confirmed.  Not one full day in the apartment, Nader's father wets himself, the telltale patch of darkened fabric along the back of his pants pointed out by Razieh's daughter, whom she has had to bring with her.  A sad struggle ensues, complicated by the fact that beyond any distaste with the task at hand, Razieh is afraid that she might sin by seeing Nader's father without clothes.  She calls a religious hotline and is assured she may proceed, an answer no more satisfying than when she phones Simin for help.  Razieh leads the hapless old man into the bathroom with a change of clothes, instructs him to put the fresh garments on and closes the door behind her.  There seems virtually no hope that this is actually going to occur.  The frustration and loneliness of the woman are almost palpable.  When Nader returns, Razieh informs him that she cannot continue.  The conversation with Nader would seem to say much about the state of these characters and their society, in its combination of barely-contained anger and an attempt to adhere to a kind of social honor.            

Razieh actually encourages Nader to hire her unemployed husband in her stead, without revealing that she had first taken on the job (which she did without his approval).  Nader does meet and hire Razieh's husband, Hodjat.  But when he's temporarily arrested at the behest of creditors, Razhieh has to return.  In short order, A Separation's driving tragedy is set forth.  During her first day back, Razieh is panicked to find out that Nader's father has managed to slip out of the building.  The stooped, confused man has gone out for his paper.  A nervous sequence follows in which Razieh spots him across a busy street; both she and Nader's father seem in danger of being hit by the moving cars crowding the many lanes between them.  The next day, Nader returns to find the apartment locked, Razieh absent and his unconscious father on the floor, adjacent to the bed to which he had been bound.  Nader fires Razieh when she returns with her daughter, angrily denouncing the neglect of his father and accusing her of stealing of money he discovered missing.  As Nader struggles to rouse his father, Razieh returns to protest her innocence and demand her pay.  Nader forces her out of the apartment, causing her to fall on the landing outside the door.  Only later does he find out that Razieh has been hospitalized due to a miscarriage.  Nader is charged with murder of the unborn child.       

Mr. Farhadi both wrote and directed (as well as serving as producer for) A Separation.  As a director, he elicits sure, deeply-felt performances from his actors.  Like the members of his cast, there is virtually nothing done by the director merely for effect.  At times his camera is static, as with the early courtroom scene in which it is stationed from the point of view of the judge, toward which the bickering Simin and Nader speak.  Elsewhere, the camera is a keen, inconspicuous observer:   intimate with the characters in certain moments, observing from another room in others, as when Nader has a rare breakdown while washing his father in his wheelchair.  There are even playful perspectives that capture the curiosity of Razieh's lovely dark-haired moppet of a daughter:  her lips pressed against the opaque glass of the door when they first arrive; her first sight of the Nader's father from a hallway, nothing but legs seen poking over the edge of his bed.  When the camera does move, it has the power of rarely-flared emotion, as when Razieh is followed down the stairway and out onto the street, her dark chador sweeping down the stairs and then billowing in the wind outdoors.   

Farhadi's writing, occuring as it does to represent numerous perspectives and class distinctions, is nearly as faultless.  However, as the proceedings against Nader go forward, the story does temporarily lose its way.  A key issue in the case is Nader's claim that he was unaware of Razieh's pregnancy.  He's lying to protect himself.  While adamant about his innocence in doing harm to Razieh and her unborn child, he fears the case will go against him if the judge knows he pushed a woman he knew to be pregnant out the door.  Both his daughter, Termeh, and her tutor are made to lie on his behalf, although the latter recants her story after confronted by the stormy Hodjat.  Simin seems to believe her husband guilty without much reflection.  

Nader is made to be the heavy of the story for a time, until a revelation about Razieh's miscarriage returns the story to its original level perspective.  While it is looking bad for Nader, even his father is made to regard him with more lucid, accusing attention than seems realistic.  

What Farhadi had done so well to the point of the ill-advised detour was show how each of the principals was culpable in their way. There is not a villain so much as an unfortunate series of events.  We're shown a society in which most everyone - the families facing their particular problems, judges trying to discern truth from a babel of opposing arguments - everyone seems to want to live their life honorably.  But the pressures brought to bear- financial, legal or personal - make living honorably with one's beliefs or amicably with one's family next to impossible.  

Fortunately, A Separation ends as it begins.  Nader and Simin are seated on opposite sides of a crowded corridor while Termeh struggles to tell a judge with which parent she has decided to live.  As the couple await the decision, a rising cacophony of voices, yet more rancor awaiting deliberation by over-taxed magistrates, can be heard echoing in the hallway.  It's perfectly indefinite conclusion to a film which is very, very good when often at its unwavering best.              

Asghar Farhadi's complete original title of the film, translated to English, is Nader and Simin, A Separation.  The focus is initially on the couple at odds, but the scope fairly quickly expands to the immediate world in which Nader and Simin, as well as those around them are struggling to make their lives.  Farhadi has said that one of the questions his film means to ask is if the society we see is indeed a fit place to raise Termeh.  A Separation might not provide an answer, but in the asking it would seem to expose more a significant rift than that between a husband and wife.  There is ample indication of a rift between a people and the structure of their own society.  A more profound separation.     

Only connect.  Or sadly, not.   Peyman Maadi and Sareh Bayat in A Separation.  



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