This story could have been set in other locations around the world, but was courageously set and filmed in Iran under duress and threat of retribution from the government. In October, two acclaimed Iranian filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi, were sentenced to one and six years in prison, respectively, for making a film about Iran’s Green Movement and the turmoil surrounding Iran’s sham election in 2009. Within such an environment, producing a complex film in which neither the state nor religion provide sufficient solutions to the problems of the characters is audacious.
These institutions are not made into easy villains however, nor are any of the characters, who are each real, multifaceted human beings capable of surprising the audience, their family members, and even themselves. The characters and institutions are all rendered as imperfect agents mired in a difficult situation with limited options, where even many of their morally questionable actions are well-intentioned but lead to unforeseen negative consequences.
The film opens with a single take scene viewed from the perspective of a judge, as a wife asks the court to award her a divorce from her husband. Simin, (Leila Hatami) has finally obtained official permission for her family to move abroad after an 18 month effort, and the visa will expire in 40 days. Her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), however, has apparently changed his mind during the process, causing a rift in the marriage which leads to the divorce proceeding. While Nader is ostensibly a secular, modern, educated man, he is content to benefit from the patriarchal, theocratic system when it suits him. By simply doing nothing, he allows the legal system to prevent his wife from leaving, since she cannot take her 10-year old daughter abroad without his permission and cannot divorce him unilaterally without proof of abuse, abandonment, or other such misbehavior. The judge tells Simin, "My finding is that your problem is a small problem," and refuses to grant the divorce.
When Simin moves in with her mother after the divorce is denied, the carefully constructed equilibrium of the family’s home life is shattered. While the state refuses to intervene in the marital standoff, Simin’s absence allows religion and class issues to enter the household in the form of a devout maid named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) who comes to work in the house with her young daughter without the knowledge of her husband, Hojjat, (Shahab Hosseini) an unemployed, yet proud, pious man with debts that keep him in and out of prison. Razieh is unequipped to care for Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shabhazi), an elderly man with Alzheimer’s disease.
On her first day, Razieh’s religious modesty makes her wary of cleaning the helpless man in her care after he has soiled himself. As she stands outside the bathroom imploring him to wash himself, the man calls out for Simin, and we realize the integral role his daughter-in-law played as caretaker to the whole family. Torn between helping a person in need and adhering to religious rules, she calls a religious authority to ask if cleaning the man would be a sin, and proceeds to do so after being assured she will not suffer divine retribution. “I won’t tell daddy,” Razieh’s young daughter volunteers, sensing the danger of the situation.
Later that day Razieh tries to quit, but elects to remain because of guilt-tripping on Nader's part and her need to earn money. The tension caused by this untenable situation brings about the central crisis in the film, which not only pits a middle class secular family against a poor, devout one, but strains the relationships within each family.
However, when a subsequent incident lands everyone back in court, Nader finds the obstinacy and power of the state is no longer convenient. All of a sudden it is being leveraged by a poorer, self righteous and pious couple and threatens to destroy his existence. The legal system is devoid of formal procedure and due process, and citizens navigate it without the aid of legal counsel. The events that bring the legal battle about appear partially off-screen and are clouded by lies, ambiguities and flawed incentives that are only partially and slowly revealed to the audience.
A Separation, filmed on location in Tehran, suffered an interruption in filming by the Iranian government after Farhadi made a speech about censorship at the Iran Cinema Celebration Film Festival put on by the independent film association House of Cinema. The impasse was later ameliorated, allowing filming to resume, and the film is now Iran's official submission for the Foreign Language Film category of the 84th Academy Awards being held in February 2012. On 24 January it was selected from 63 submissions and 9 semifinalists as one of 5 finalists for the award. After becoming the first Iranian film to win the Golden Globe award for best foreign film, it is the frontrunner for the Oscar. Asghar Farhadi has also been nominated for a best original screenplay Academy Award.
The director's daughter, Sarina Farhadi, plays the ten-year-old daughter, Termeh, in the film. Her heart-wrenching performance earned her a share of the Best Actress (ensemble) Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the film itself won the Golden Bear for best film. Termeh is an unfortunate pawn in the conflict between several adults, forced unfairly to constantly implore her parents to show humanity, arbitrate their separation, make very adult decisions, and act as a reminder of moral obligations for the adults around her. Her image of her parents and the world is forever altered by what she witnesses and surmises.
Farhadi’s rich, nuanced characterizations recall the work of writer/director Mike Leigh, director of such masterpieces as Another Year and Secrets and Lies. It is not surprising then to learn that like Leigh and his casts, Farhadi and the actors fine tuned the characters over a months long collaborative rehearsal process, establishing back stories and motivations for what happens on screen. Asghar Farhadi even had Peyman Moadi (Nader) pick up Sarina Farhadi (Termeh) from school everyday during this period so that they would develop a father-daughter relationship. During this entire period Sareh Bayet, (Razieh) who is secular and upper class, attended religious ceremonies, read the Qu’ran everyday, and wore a chador, the open cloak worn by many Iranian women.
The simple, naturalistic camera work and gritty, neo neo-realist style places the film in the esteemed company of such recent films as Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River.
While the international cinematic community embraced the film, and Iranian film in general, Iranian culture minister Mohammed Hosseini continued the state assault on free expression by closing the House of Cinema on January 4. The closing of the only domestic organization that supports independent film was an obviously political decision, though the government claims that the group lacked the proper operating license (despite existing for 20 years). The group, which has over 5,000 members, was the parent group and chief advocate for a series of Iranian motion picture guilds and was a supporter of the Green movement and other progressive groups.
The shuttering of the House of Cinema is part of a larger pattern. Since 2008, Iranian authorities have closed down the Human Rights Defenders Centre, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, the Association of Iranian Journalists, and Daftar-e Tahkim, a leading pro-democracy student union; as well as dozens of other civil society organizations, in spite of multiple protests from the international human rights community.
In a society where basic human expression is systematically stamped out, and for an international community seeking to understand this enigmatic nation, films that artfully depict the lives of everyday Iranians are essential.
Tibita Kaneene lives in New York City and works as a financial journalist.