A Separation (2011)

Directed by Asghar Farhadi

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The Separation opens with a married couple, Nader and Simin, arguing before a judge.  They are in a divorce court, but neither wants to get divorced.  She wants to move abroad immediately to give their daughter, Termeh, a better life, and he wants to wait a little longer to care for his father suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Their argument and so much of the backstory is unleashed in a handful of minutes, in a single take in which the camera takes the judge’s perspective.  They are thus looking into the camera, at the audience, allowing us to make up our own minds about whose side to take, if we take anyone’s at all.

The rest of the film will work similarly, presenting a series of escalating conflicts with reasonable but vulnerable people at the center.  If one of them appears to be firmly in the right or wrong, new information quickly blurs those lines.  It’s a film firmly in the gray area, pointing out how the law (and judgment in general) isn’t entirely equipped to deal with all human problems.  There are no sides to be taken here, though the story is framed in a way that allows us to attempt to come to our own conclusions.

The result is heart-racing melodrama.  I found so much here to be so aggravating because conflict in general is aggravating.  Characters are so lost in their anger, fear and subjective sense of right and wrong that reconciliation feels as fantastical as a literal superpower.

When Simin moves out, leaving Nader at home with Termeh and his elderly father, he hires a caregiver named Razieh, devoutly religious and a sister of Simin’s friend.  When Nader’s father soils himself, Razieh must call a friend to see if it would be a sin to change his underwear.  Her faith also prevents her from serving in the home of a man without his wife present, and when her husband, Hodjat, finds out he grows irate.

He finds out because Razieh experiences a miscarriage after Nader uses physical force to push her out of his house.  He does this after he returned home to find her absent and his father tied to the bedpost, splayed on the ground with his oxygen mask knocked off.  Should he have arrived ten minutes later, Nader reasons, his father might be dead.  To make matters worse the money he would use to pay Razieh happens to be missing.

From there the truth is clarified and then obscured.  Nader and Hodjat both try to get justice for the things they think have been done against them, they both try to protect themselves from prison, and there will be consequences that have to do with out of court settlements, Razieh’s faith and new insights into the truth of her miscarriage.

It’s all quite heartbreaking because director Asghar Farhadi does such a tremendous job showing each character’s humanity.  They are complex and flawed, all in tragic ways.  Hodjat, for example, seems easy to pin down because of his temper, and fairly early into the story the possibility is raised that he may have assaulted his wife, leading to the miscarriage, and now wants someone else to blame for it.

But he isn’t a monster, and to write him off as such would be simplistic and ill-advised.  He is unemployed and depressed, and losing his unborn child is an undeniable tragedy to which his reactions are easy to understand.

In Nader’s case, after we see him lose his own temper and push Razieh out the front door, we see him carefully bathing his father and soon break down into tears.  His anger is quickly neutralized, with us seeing the pain which drove his reckless behavior.

So none of these characters are easy to pin down, and they could all be the protagonists of their own story.  The fact that the conflict escalates so quickly and dramatically suggests how messy and nuanced such a thing can be.  It shows why conflict is so easy to come by, and it shows how hard it can be to emerge from that labyrinth.

Up Next: The Handmaiden (2016), Funny Ha Ha (2002), The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

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