Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a riveting domestic drama that works equally well as a character study and a social critique. An ensemble cast without a weak link helps illustrate an infuriating–at times almost despair inducing–culture where a caretaker has to call a religious hotline to confirm whether or not it is a sin to change the pants of an elderly Alzhiemer’s patient who has wet himself and a woman who applies for a job without her husband’s permission can face legal sanctions.
I have seen a number of contemporary Iranian films over the years at The Toronto International Film Festival, but what separates A Separation from films like Offiside, When Buddha Collapsed From Shame, or My Tehran for Sale is the way that it manages to have empathy for men and women, rich and poor alike, showing how good people caught in a web of harsh circumstances can eventually succumb to accumulated pressures created by just trying to survive.
The film starts with the two principals appearing before a judge, each giving their reasons for wanting to separate. At that start, it appears that this will be another examination of how difficult the conditions are for women in a religious patriarchy. But then the film follows the husband, Nader (a superb Peyman Moaadi) as he attempts to secure a caretaker for his elderly, invalid father, shuttle his daughter to and from school, and work enough to pay the family’s bills.
It is crucial that in a work director Farhadi told the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival was as much an illustration of class warfare as it was about familial conflict that we see Nader as something more than a cartoon villain. He can ask for leniency towards a man who has infuriated him, risk jail rather than tell his daughter a lie.
The heart of the movie may be in a scene where the daughter attempts to understand how her parents, her father especially, must wrestle with shades of gray in a culture that only sees sin and white and punishes accordingly. As the ripples of the internal separation continue, nearly every character is forced to draw and test the lines where personal integrity meet unfair, at times horrific, circumstances.
One of the things I appreciated most about A Separation is how it illustrated how a fundamentalist mindset (be it cultural or personal) often forces a person to choose between public rigtheousness and simple, human decency, how the simplest of moral precepts when hardened by law and wielded by imperfect, fallen beings can become a boulder that grinds people rather than a light that guides them.
It felt fitting that on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I saw a film that reminded the audience how similar are the problems, longings, and fears of people from different cultures, how fear is not the same thing as evil, and how righteousness is not the same as love.