‘A Separation’: The law of unintended consequences

December 28, 2011

Family dynamics make for potent drama – and few films this year have used that idea to better effect than Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” which made my 10-best list for 2011.

The drama stems less from head-to-head conflict – though that comes, eventually – but from subtler things. Truth and small lies, ethics and expediency, life and death – they all have an effect and create a sense of suspense and a tension that are enthralling by the end of this film.

Set in contemporary urban Iran, the film begins with a husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), and wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), sitting before a judge, arguing about a divorce. Simin has made arrangements for the couple to leave Iran so their daughter won’t face the kind of gender inequality endemic in the country. But now husband Simin has changed his mind – he won’t leave because he won’t be able to care for his elderly father, who lives with them and has Alzheimer’s. If he doesn’t grant his permission, however, Simin can’t take their daughter out of the country.

The angry Simin does what she can: She moves out. That leaves Nader to care for both his pre-adolescent daughter and his father. Before she leaves, Simin hires a devout young woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to be the housekeeper for Nader and his daughter. But no one mentions to Razieh how much of the job involves looking after the elderly father, whose disease is advanced enough that he needs constant tending.

As a result, on Razieh’s first day, she finds herself left alone with the elderly man – and then forced to clean him up when he has an accident. It is an unnerving breach of Islamic law – for a woman to have that kind of intimate contact with a man who isn’t her husband. She looks for other solutions to dealing with the feeble old man; at one point, because of a doctor’s appointment, she is forced to lock him in the apartment tied to his bed. That leads to an argument with Nader, who accuses her of stealing money and pushes her out of the apartment as she tries to defend herself.

That argument and that push – as well as what Nader may or may not have heard when Simin hired Razieh – become the central issues of a lawsuit when Razieh, who is pregnant, suffers a miscarriage. Was it the result of the push, which may have caused Razieh to fall down a couple of stairs? Did Nader even know that she was pregnant? Should he be tried for murder because of the death of her unborn child?

Farhadi presents Iran’s inquisitional court system – in which a single judge serves as judge, prosecutor, arbiter and jury – as a nightmarish bureaucracy less caught up in Islamic absolutism than in the crush of day-to-day cases. Yet the interrogator who hears this case – which now includes Razieh’s distraught husband – seems to ask the right questions.

The problem is that no one seems to be telling the whole truth. Each of them shades their version of what happened just enough to make themselves look blameless – and each of them has someone close to them who knows the truth and who is wrestling with his or her own conscience about what to reveal.

It’s a fascinating, even thrilling film, with performances that embody the exasperation and impatience of real life and the feeling that events are snowballing out of control. Maadi and Hatami create characters under pressure, at once adversaries and compatriots, forced to work together even as they’re struggling with their own separation.

Nationality and religion ultimately are only window-dressing in what amounts to a gripping personal tale of people trying to keep their own lives together under trying circumstances. “A Separation” is that rarity: a movie that continually surprises you, reminding you that the best films are the ones that deal with complex emotional truth, rather than a clichéd cinematic version of it.

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