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A Separation

By Philip Martin

This article was published March 2, 2012 at 2:39 a.m.

— Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation is a complex and nuanced movie about the end of a modern marriage, the collapse of a relationship between intelligent people of good will. It is heartbreaking and subtle, the sort of film that some folks say isn’t made often or well enough by the usual Hollywood suspects.

That it comes from Iran may not come as a surprise to those familiar with the country’s rich cinematic tradition, although the film’s implicit critique of that country’s theocratic jurisprudence, as well as the familiar restatement of apparently universal quandaries - the problems posed by aging parents and progeny with potential - feels less the product of an admittedly repressive society than a slice of baby boomer life. While connoisseurs of Iranian cinema will find A Separation and its theme of national alienation reminiscent of the work of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, it’s a story that could just have easily sprung from the imagination of Philip Roth or Richard Ford.

The film begins with a statement of grievance - a woman, Simin (Leila Hatami) is pleading before an unseen judge (actually us, for the camera assumes his point of view), her case for divorce. She wants to leave the country, with her precocious 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s real-life daughter) because she believes there are more opportunities for women in general, and her daughter in particular, abroad. But her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), objects. He believes he has a moral duty to stay and care for his Alzheimer’s afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who needs constant attention.

Nader and Simin have been married for 14 years, and the only apparent problem with their relationship is the impasse they’ve reached over leaving. Both seem to be decent, if imperfect people - they’ve engaged a tutor to prepare Termeh for her university exams. They want the best for their daughter - it’s just that Nader feels responsible for the past as well as the future.

While the Solomonic judge sees no cause for divorce, Simin removes herself from the household, moving in with her mother, while Termeh remains with her father, who, with no wife in the picture, must engage a drudge to look after his helpless father. The drudge he can afford has no special training, and problems of her own, and soon a misunderstanding escalates into a terrible yet completely explicable tragedy that puts Nader back in court.

Class matters, as do traditional sex roles. In Iran, women are expected to fill certain roles regardless of their competence and ability. Though Simin is a physician, her place in the home is in the kitchen while the men lounge and laugh around the foosball table. Nader is not a bad man, but a product of his culture. As thoroughly modern as he seems, he’s still more puzzled than offended that Simin does not accept his word as law.

While there are parts of A Separation that feel a bit scripted and schematic, Farhadi wisely refrains from providing us with clear-cut villains or saints. While Western audiences may be likely to receive Nader and Simin as sympathetic people not terribly different from themselves, an alternate view might cast them as decadently bourgeois heretics. Daily life in Tehran is depicted as a daily marathon of bureaucratic exhaustion, legal wrangling and ultimately the fraying of civil decorum. Like life, the film fires philosophical questions for which it doesn’t pretend to have answers.

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 03/02/2012

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