Nader (Peyman Moadi: About Elly) and Simin (Leila Hatami: Aseman-e mahboob) are in the middle of a bitter divorce and custody battle, made more bitter by the fact that neither wants to end the marriage.
After years of paperwork and expense, the Iranian government has granted the couple visas so that they can emigrate. Simin has been dreaming of this day so that she can move her daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi in her screen debut) to a country that offers more opportunities for young women.
At this crucial point, Nader’s father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and needs constant care. Nader sees his responsibility to his father as more important than relocating. Simin sees only what is best for their daughter and insists they go, putting Nader’s father in a care facility.
To make a point, Simin files for divorce and leaves. Imagine her surprise when Nader takes her up on the offer.
It’s not that Nader wants a divorce; he thinks calling his wife’s bluff will get her to return home. Simin, of course, believes that his consent to a divorce is a slap in the face and resolves to leave. Stuck in the middle is 12-year-old Termeh, who refuses to abandon her dad but needs her mother.
Sound complicated? It gets worse.
Since Nader wishes his bright daughter to focus on school and suddenly has no wife to help him with his father, he must hire a care worker. He asks his wife for a recommendation and hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat: The Devil’s Take).
Razieh is desperate for the job, as the sole breadwinner while her husband bounces in and out of debtors’ prison. But she might not be the best fit. She’s pregnant and deeply religious, thus forbidden on pain of sin to work in a home where she is alone with a man, let alone to touch her patient.
After one particularly disastrous day, Simin, Nader, Razieh and their families are dragged before the court, with Nader charged with murder. What follows is a Rashomon-like web of testimonies that forces the audience to decide what happened.
What sets A Separation apart from other he-said-she-said tales is the people who populate this story. No one here is a bad guy. It’s the story of decent people making questionable decisions in terrible situations. You can’t fault Simin for wanting her daughter to grow up in a less oppressive environment. And Nader is nothing but honorable in his wish to take care of his sick father.
The movie presents no easy answers on life in Iran, either. Director Asghar Farhadi (About Elly) takes you on a journey through the complex religious, social and legislative bodies of his native country without condemning or praising them. He simply shows you what life is like: Jurists are overworked, caretakers are underpaid and people are slaves to pride and emotion.
In so doing, Farhadi challenges many western misconceptions. Simin is far from a subservient wife, challenging her husband at every turn and demanding a better life for her daughter. Nader is a devoted son and father who doesn’t want his family torn apart but is sick of fighting.
The best recommendation the film could have is its Foreign Film Oscar victory a few weeks ago. But keep in mind, the film was also nominated for its screenplay, which deftly weaves together the lives of three ordinary people whose choices force them into extraordinary circumstances.
Yes, the film requires reading, which is a shame, since subtitles take your eyes off the expressive faces of the actors. But it’s worth a bit of brainwork to experience this dramatic and absorbing tale.