I don't just sometimes worry about my credibility as a film critic; I also worry about my own tastes as a supposedly discerning and refined film buff. Because I gotta face it, I like the lowbrow stuff. (If I didn't, I wouldn't have rated the previous movie so high.) I knew I was obliged to watch A Separation; it isn't often that Best Foreign Language Oscar-winning films make it to our screens, especially universally-acclaimed films like this one. But I worried that I'm too much in the Hollywood blockbuster mindset to be able to enjoy an Iranian domestic drama, especially with The Avengers playing right now and everyone talking about it and me just itching to go catch it already.
I needn't have worried. I enjoyed it, and appreciated it, more than fine.
Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a couple undergoing a divorce; she wants to migrate with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but he can't leave due to his Alzheimer's-ridded father (Ali-Asghar Sharbazi). When Simin leaves the house to stay with her parents, Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. But one day, he comes home to find both Razieh and her daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) absent, and his father fallen unconscious with a hand tied to his bed. When Razieh returns, he fires her and angrily shoves her out of their apartment - only later, she suffers a miscarriage, and he is accused by Razieh's hot-tempered husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) of causing it. Their feud will lead to court hearings, clashes of wills and betrayals of trust, and possibly even tear both families apart.
I've said before that what I enjoy about a good low-key drama is the same as what I enjoy about an action movie or thriller: well-drawn characters engaged in compelling conflicts that can be suspenseful, even gripping. The stakes need not be life and death or the fate of the world; it can be as low as a person's happiness, as long as that person is developed well enough that he or she becomes real, as real as someone we know personally. A Separation does this with no less than four characters: Nader and Simin, and Hojjat and Razieh. And it sets all of them against each other, in bitter disputes that they all have intense personal stakes in - and then it sets us, the audience, as the objective observer in this dispute.
We start off with Nader and Simin, pleading their wish for a divorce before an unsympathetic judge, and straight away the root cause of their conflict is made clear. Nader is a filial son who will not abandon his father; Simin wants to leave Iran and seek a better life elsewhere (as is made clear when the judge asks her "Why do you want to leave?" and she sheepishly does not answer). Both their motivations are understandable and sympathetic, and if Simin's seems less so, there is a scene between her and her father-in-law that shows how much she cares about him, and how much she regrets the circumstances that made her decide to leave. After she moves back in with her parents, we spend most of the time with Nader - which only seems like he's the protagonist of the story.
But once Razieh is introduced, it's not hard to instantly sympathise with her too. Devoutly Muslim, clearly overwhelmed by the job of caring for an Alzheimer's patient (at one point, she has to seek religious advice on whether she is allowed to change an old man's soiled underpants), forced to travel a tiringly long commute to come to work, in dire financial straits, and all this with a baby on the way. Nader however, who has crushing burdens of his own, refuses to believe himself responsible for her miscarriage, and does a little amateur sleuthing to clear his name. But even before he does so, the judge asks if he knows Razieh was pregnant - and Nader, knowing how bad it will make him look if he said yes, lies. That lie turns out to become more than a little white one, when it goes on to involve Termeh's tutor Ms. Qahraei (Merila Zarei) - and Termeh - in abetting it.
Even Hojjat - prone to violent outbursts, and whom, at one point, the film teases us with the possibility that his physical abuse of his wife caused the miscarriage - becomes a fully-realised and sympathetic character rather than the clear antagonist. From his point of view, his child was murdered, and the man who did it is trying to worm his way out of the charge. His angry rants also expose the class differences between the two couples; one comes from humble backgrounds, the other is more worldly and affluent, and this is but one of the many fine threads running through this story. Another is that Razieh initially did not even tell her husband that she is working in the house of another man - perhaps out of fear he would object out of religious reasons, or perhaps simply to protect his wounded pride out of no longer being the family breadwinner. This exposes cracks in their marriage, just as Nader's and Simin's is close to ruin.
And as an objective observer of the entire drama, one can only conclude that there is nothing even close to right and wrong here. Everyone has wronged and been wronged; everyone has done bad things with the best of intentions. Only Termeh, and Razieh's much younger daughter Somayeh, are the only true innocents here, and they are ultimately the ones who suffer the most - especially Termeh, who has to choose which of her divorcing parents she's going to live with. We, as audience members, are free of the obligation to resolve these people's problems. Even when we want to reach into the screen, shake them by their shoulders, and yell at them to do the right thing instead of the prideful one, we know it most likely won't make a difference. But Termeh has to act on what has happened, and decide the best (or more likely, the least worst) course for the future of the people she loves. It is a terrible decision, and it makes for the perfect ending to the film.
I think I've done it again: spent this entire review talking about the movie, rather than properly reviewing it. It was pretty hard, I gotta say, and I most likely find it easier to review a formulaic genre film than a quiet human drama like this. But as quiet human dramas go, A Separation is terrific. I may not have found it as much of a masterpiece as AV Club's A rating, or Roger Ebert's four stars, or its 99% RottenTomatoes score might imply - I would've liked it more if the tone wasn't so low-key - but I still found it highly sophisticated in its complexity, yet riveting in the unfolding of its story. It's the perfect palate-cleanser in the midst of the Hollywood summer blockbuster season; there's no reason why you can't enjoy it and appreciate it just like you did, say, The Avengers.
NEXT REVIEW: The Avengers