“A Separation” is the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film and the first win for a movie from Iran. Written, produced, and directed by Asghar Fahadi, “A Separation” is a carefully structured and nuanced story that is at times painful and tragic but always mesmerizing. Set in modern-day Iran, the film is a devastating look at divorce through the cultural lens of a very complex country. Fahadi uses an almost methodical approach to storytelling yet his film is brimming with intensity and true human emotions. It touches on a reality of life that transcends any political or cultural barrier while also offering some thought-provoking insight into the religious laws and social structure of that part of the world.
“A Separation” opens with a well conceived scene that sets the stage for larger story. The scene shows Nader and Simin petitioning a judge for a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Simin is spearheading the separation because she wants to leave the country due to its current state of affairs. She is concerned with how it will effect the future of their 11-year-old daughter Termeh. Nader has no desire to leave mainly because he takes care of his father who is in the advance stages of Alzheimer’s. The judge rules their complaints to be petty and not warranting a divorce. With no divorce granted Simin still moves out leaving Nader to take care of his father and Termeh.
It’s here where we begin to see the many layers of Fahadi’s story. He examines a variety of social issues while offering a subtle but clear critique of Iranian culture. Yet nothing here feels forced or contrived. He looks at these things through the eyes of his characters in a true and organic way. Plus we learn more about the characters as they’re faced with things such as elderly care, school pressure, and rigid orthodoxy. But the biggest dissection of the characters comes through an intense court battle between Nader and a caretaker he hired to look after his father. It’s here that we see each character struggle with a variety of difficult choices and moral quandaries. It becomes a true character study that reveals a side of people that we can recognize as wrong while also understanding the root cause of their moral compromises. This is where the story could have evolved into a convoluted and self-indulgent mess. But Fahadi’s razor-sharp screenplay never misses a step and the film moves with a fluid yet painful grace.
While Fahadi takes his characters through various moral gray areas, he never labels one the hero and one the villain. There are no white or blacks hats in this story. In fact, one of the most compelling things about the film is trying to figure out who to sympathize with between Nader and Simin. I was constantly going back and both between them as things unfolded. But that’s just another reflection of the tremendous screenplay. Fahadi engages the audience and encourages them to make their own conclusions about his characters. And while his story does examine social and cultural issues, “A Separation” is a film about a divorce that’s happening right before our eyes. But as I was watching this husband and wife I realized that the heart of this story was young Termeh. Like a tennis ball she is bounced back and forth in the background of the film until everything reaches it’s breaking point. She’s simply heart-breaking.
Another reason the movie works so well are the performances. Everyone across the board is fantastic and no one buckles under the weighty material. The performances flow perfectly together with such ease. They nicely handle a script that can sometimes pack more intensity in an on-screen conversation than most action films. I remember several scenes that had me on the edge of my seat just by its searing dialogue. But while the story is very well written, there is one problem I had. There’s a pivotal moment close to the end of the film where key information is revealed in what feels like the most convenient way imaginable. It’s the only time in the entire film where something didn’t feel authentic.
“A Separation” is a fantastic movie that does more to prove the broad range of global talent in filmmaking. It’s a fascinating look at the cultural inner-workings of a complex society yet the main thrust of the story goes well beyond that. It examines the horrible effects of divorce by looking at it through a very clear lens. Fahadi doesn’t try to take sides even if it appears so at first. Instead he exposes what drives some people to end their marriage. It’s an honest and often times crushing picture but one that is incredibly well crafted. It does have a minor hiccup or two but these minor flaws do nothing to spoil what a fine accomplishment this is. “A Separation” should cause the serious viewer to think and to ask ourselves questions. For me, that’s just a reflection on how good this movie is.