I haven't yet got around to seeing Asghar Farhadi's highly regarded previous feature About Elly, despite the fact that it's included on what's probably my favourite Top 10 Films 0f 2010 list. But I can certainly recommend the Iranian director’s latest film, A Separation, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the first Iranian film to do so. It’s a rich and empathetic drama that explores the break-up of a professional 30-something couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). In contrast with the intellectual and abstract (sometimes frustratingly so) tone that some of us have come to associate with Iranian cinema, there’s a direct, emotional quality to A Separation that’s rather bracing. It’s an approach that’s evident from the very first scene of the movie, a front-on shot from the perspective of the Judge that finds Simin explaining that she wants to leave Iran because she doesn’t want their daughter Termed (Sarina Farhadi) growing up “in these circumstances.” Nader disagrees, not least because he has an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who requires constant care. The conflict between the pair is thus succinctly established, but the situation is unresolved, legally speaking, prompting Simin to move back in with her mother and Nader to hire a young woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to take care of his father while he’s at work.
But, as it turns out, A Separation isn’t "just" a tale of marital break-up angst. Instead, as the drama pivots upon an unfortunate incident that brings Razieh’s volatile husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) into the fray, the scope of the movie broadens. And we come to recognise that the title refers not simply to the separation of the couple but to a range of societal schisms - between classes, between generations, and between genders, more broadly.
However, these conflicts and tensions, with their wider resonances, are explored through an intense focus upon the everyday domestic experiences of the characters. Although the movie is a little sketchy on Nader and Simin’s work lives, and perhaps errs a little in keeping Simin off-screen for too long after the first few scenes, it’s mostly beautifully structured, with a strong sense of pace and rhythm and occasional well-judged ellipses that leave plenty of space for the audience’s involvement and interpretation.
Indeed, what’s particularly stimulating about A Separation is the way in which it never allows the viewer to come to a final judgement on its characters. As in life, our perspective on the people here keeps shifting. At first, Bayat’s pregnant, put-upon Razieh seems the most sympathetic figure, but that impression goes through a few changes before her heart-wrenching final scene. The movie pulls you in every direction in terms of how you respond to its protagonists, and it looks at everyone with a tender yet unsentimental regard. The portrait of Nader’s father is one of the most realistic representations of an Alzheimer’s sufferer that I’ve seen on screen, and Farhadi’s work with the two young actresses who play Nader and Simin’s and Razieh’s daughters is also peerless. Noteworthy, too, is the film’s seriousness: it’s not po-faced in tone, but Farhadi doesn’t try to sweeten the pill with humour and his engagement with moral issues is entirely refreshing. Great movie, and an antidote to Bridesmaids (2011), for those who feel the need of one.