Films set in a different culture than your own can be challenging. What is familiar to those entrenched in the culture can seem odd to those looking from the outside in. The outsider views the film from one angle while those on the inside may see it quite different. Enter A Separation, an Iranian film set in modern day Iran and me set in modern day USA.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are husband and wife. How long they will be married is in question from the first scene. Shot from the view of the judges chair, Simin pleads with the judge to grant her a divorce since she claims her husband agreed to leave the country with her over a year ago. The paperwork is done and now he won’t leave. Nader says he can’t leave his father, who suffers from the later stages of Alzheimer’s. He also won’t give permission for Simin to take their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her. Simin argues that his father doesn’t even know who Nader is anymore so there is no difference in who takes care of him. Not the most sensitive argument ever made. The dialogue flies fast and furious as one might expect under such conditions. Keeping up with the sub-titles can be a challenge.
The couple stay married while Simin moves in with her parents. She says she intends to leave the country, with or without her family. Nader is then put in a tough situation. He can’t leave his father on his own during the day so he scrambles and finds someone to care for him. This leads to a long, twisted road of decisions impacting lives in unexpected ways. The viewpoints of those on each side of the issue are taken into account making it hard to take sides. Empathy is felt for all yet it’s discomforting. I was reminded of a quieter, more nuanced Changing Lanes. If there are any missteps it’s in being so procedural, the film loses some of its emotional impact in the last act.
The Iranian court system is on full display. Is it an accurate portrayal? I don’t know. But the intimate view of the court is fascinating to observe. There are times when it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional film, often due to the authentic acting which drives every moment.
An exhausting film, but in a good way. A Separation tells what would appear to be a simple story in a way that is anything but simple. The moral and ethical decisions characters make in some trying situations would seem easy to judge except director and writer Asghar Farhadi doesn’t provide an effortless judgement. He, like the actors themselves, ensure reality is represented in full until the end where emotions are tapped out.