Although it remains a shame that Asghar Farhadi’s last film “About Elly” still hasn’t received a proper release in the U.S. due to the bankruptcy of its distributor, it may be a blessing in disguise since in retrospect it was clearly a stepping stone for the director’s first true masterpiece.
Farhadi suggested during his latest film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival that he wouldn’t have it any other way, telling the audience that his only wish was that they forget about what they had read or heard beforehand and simply take it in. If they had seen “About Elly,” they would’ve already seen Farhadi’s structural technique, a shambling house of cards, applied to the story of the disappearance of a young woman amongst a group of three friendly families. The truth of the situation became obscured as blame shifted from one friend to the next and rather than coming together towards a common resolution, they drifted further apart, clinging onto their personal beliefs.
I tell you this because if in fact you want to respect the wishes of its director, there isn’t much more you need to have an idea of what to expect in “A Separation,” except for the fact that instead of friendships being tested in “Elly,” it cuts to the quick of familial ties and is a much richer film for it. But if you must know, “A Separation” begins with the divorce hearing of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Naader (Peyman Moaadi), where the two reach a stalemate because Naader doesn’t really want a divorce and Simin wants to take the couple’s teenage daughter to live with her abroad and she cannot without Naader’s permission. This being Iran, she has few options, but Naader isn’t unreasonable – he simply has a father with Alzheimer’s who he can’t take care of if he wants to keep his job at the bank and it’s clear he loves his daughter.
Simin decides to leave, but not before she offers Naader the number of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the sister-in-law of an acquaintance who might be able to help with his father. As it turns out, the recommendation results in far more pain than a divorce ever could as an incident involving the deeply religious Razieh and Naader’s father ends in rival court cases that could land either Razieh or Naader in prison, with the lawsuits bringing in their spouses who aren’t necessarily their better halves — Razieh’s hotheaded husband (Shahab Hosseini) is an out-of-work cobbler whose unemployment and debt pushed Razieh to secretly take the job in the first place while Simin’s insistence on dictating the course of things threatens to doom Naader at every turn. Yet everyone involved is acting out of their specific sense of what’s right and Farhadi finds the intense drama in the collision of these opposing views that should be simple to resolve but inevitably grows more and more complex.
Although he leaves a few stones unturned, Farhadi’s script for the film rolls like a freight train, picking up steam from the impeccable performances of its actors, particularly Moaadi, who is admirably reserved in playing a man suffering from the dual heartbreak of losing his father and his wife but must show strength for his daughter, and Bayat, who goes in the opposite direction as the fragile Razieh, worried that every decision she makes could be compromising her faith.
During the film’s post-screening Q & A, Farhadi explained the film’s appeal best through a translator, saying, “I believe we’re in a period where the audience needs to decide for themselves who’s good and who’s bad. It’s not for the director to determine.” And he doesn’t mean this passively. The film opens with Simin and Naader arguing the points of their separation directly into the camera, so the audience is placed in the point of view of the judge. In other films, this might be considered a gimmick to immediately grab attention and while it’s certainly effective at doing just that, it sets a tone for “A Separation” where even if the perspective of the camera shifts, the resolve to keep the audience actively questioning what’s unfolding in front of them remains firm.
For some who attended Saturday evening’s New York Film premiere, these questions weren’t limited to the moral and ethical quandaries of “A Separation” as they related to the two families of different classes, but to Farhadi’s homeland of Iran as a whole. When the director was asked whether he considered the film to be political, he responded, “The most political films are the ones you don’t realize are political when you’re watching them.” The quiet, staggering power of “A Separation” is in the realization that navigating the politics of government or of family are tasks of equal scale and equally treacherous.
“A Separation” opens on December 30th in limited release via Sony Pictures Classics.