Even as she defends her divorce filing, an Iranian woman says of her spouse, “He is a good, decent person.” But A Separation—the Iranian contender for Oscar’s Best Foreign Language Film—tests its every proposition, from the wisdom of the couple’s separation to the ethical rectitude of the spurned husband.
The opening scene of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s knot-tightening drama lets wife Simin (Leila Hatami) and husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) vent their sides of the dispute that threatens to end their marriage. Having secured visas, Simin refuses to let go of an opportunity to leave the country, with a better life in mind for eleven-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Nader will not budge: caring for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father means staying put for the foreseeable future. And so the two separate, forcing Termeh to take sides and quietly play one parent against the other in the hope they’ll see the errors of their ways.
A week later, all of their lives have turned upside down. One thing, as they say, leads to another. Nader hires a live-in housekeeper named Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who brings her own curious daughter to work. Nader’s father quickly proves to be more than the five-months-pregnant Razieh can handle, whether he’s peeing his pants or escaping to the street. Soon Razieh’s hotheaded husband enters the equation, and we realize two marriages, two families are at stake.
Mistakes and misunderstandings culminate in an altercation that lands Nader in court to face serious charges. With that, A Separation becomes something of a domestic mystery but even more so a Sophoclean tragedy of moral ambiguity. Errors of judgment stigmatize characters with overriding good intentions. Events are parsed, lies told, motivations questioned, and positions entrenched. No one escapes ethically unblemished—not even the children—but the adults are the ones who are graceless under pressure.
The climate of cultural repression in Iran has only made its cinema more vital. A Separation’s neorealism is beautifully observed and supremely humane, thanks to Farhadi’s finely honed script and the naturalistic acting of his cast. Moadi, in particular, stands out in the range of his performance. Without ever pushing, he radiates the frustration in his marital situation and concern for his father that allow him to stumble into injustice. And Nader devastates whenever his daughter is around to remind him what’s at stake, whether he’s smiling with pride as Termeh reclaims a bit of swindled cash or feeling the burn of her mounting suspicions.
The film’s separations can be familial, but also those of class and culture and between citizen and state; above all, Farhadi’s parable teaches that a rush to judgment inevitably turns back on the judge. Though the characters may not live in glass houses, it’s a shattered windshield that attends A Separation’s moment of truth.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Sony applies its usual A/V rigor to its Blu-ray release of A Separation. With the understanding that the source material has a tight budget and limited palette, viewers will find this a very strong presentation, excelling in black level, detail and texture, and a natural filmic look (with occasional specks here and there to prove it). Audio is lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0; while one doesn't often see a three-channel hi-def mix, this is one is true to the film as designed, and sufficient for what is a dialogue-driven film.
Bonus features kick off with a subtitled commentary with writer/director Asghar Farhadi, who expresses reticence about doing so since he wants the audience to make up their own minds about the material. Nevertheless, Farhadi expounds upon the characters and thoughts and feelings, as well as the development and shooting of the film.
Farhadi also speaks at length in the post-screening Q&A "An Evening with Asghar Farhadi" (30:42, HD); given the necessity of a translator, this feature isn't quite as in-depth as it sounds, but Farhadi does share more of interest. Those interested to hear how Farhadi became interested in and educated himself about film will want to check out another Farhadi interview, in the featurette "Birth of a Director" (7:53, HD). Rounding out the disc is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:03, HD).
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