A Separation: snapshot of how people survive under grinding pressure in a police state

Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation / Jodái-e Náder az Simin” (2011)

A tragic story about how good intentions can start off a snowball that turns into an avalanche of conflict, moral self-betrayal and tragedy in a context whose cultural, social and political oppressions feed into and off this downward slide. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) are a middle-class couple fighting over the future of their daughter, Termeh: Simin wants to take her overseas so the girl will not have to grow up in a misogynistic theocracy but Nader can’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, behind and Termeh won’t leave without Dad. Simin files for divorce and leaves Nader and Termeh to care for the elderly man but Nader also has to work so on Simin’s recommendation he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young working-class woman, to look after Grandpa. The work of looking after Nader’s dad is too much for the pregnant Razieh who also has a small girl, Somayeh, in tow and so a series of mishaps occurs which escalate into confrontations that have the effect of straining Simin and Nader’s fragile marriage further and roping in other innocent parties such as Termeh’s tutor, various neighbours and Razieh and her husband Hojjat’s relatives and his creditors. Along the way, Termeh, perhaps the wisest and sanest person in the film, learns a hard lesson about moral ambiguity, the class divide between herself and Somayeh, the oppressive role that religion is made to play in Iranian society, and how living in Iran with all its restrictions simply grinds good people like her parents, Razieh and others into situations where they abase themselves and one another.

So many problems as highlighted in this film exist in modern Iranian society due to its police-state nature and ham-fisted interpretation of Islamic principles and shari’a law. If the theocracy weren’t so oppressive towards women, Simin would never have thought of leaving the country and Razieh might have left overbearing and violent Hojjat ages ago. If the government would allow free exchanges between medical professionals and scientists, help for Alzheimer’s disease sufferers would be more available and Simin and Nader would know enough to realise that Nader’s father is deteriorating rapidly and that he needs to be in a nursing home to receive 24/7 care. If the government weren’t so strict and narrow-minded in structuring society along religious lines, the officials in charge of mediating disputes could offer better advice to parties in conflict other than rely on simplistic interpretations of Islam. Farhadi’s genius in “A Separation” is to show at once how a theocratic society such as Iran’s with its structures and ideology is ill-equipped to deal with day-to-day problems that Nader, Simin, Razieh and Hojjat encounter, and how they all end up not only coming to blows with one another but meaner and baser as a result.

Some people might believe that Islam is being criticised in this film but I disagree; true, Razieh relies too much on the Phone-a-mullah Helpline service for advice as to whether it’s OK for a woman to wash an unrelated man’s privates but her example is not all that different from those North Americans who rely on “What would Jesus do?” agony aunts on radio and cable TV for advice on losing weight, how to deal with kids skipping Bible classes and getting little Ebenezer or Jayleigh to do their creationist science homework (because the kids figured out they were being lied to). It’s likely that Razieh has turned to an Allah-of-the-gaps religion for comfort from hot-tempered Hojjat, coping with his family and the pressure of poverty which forces her into accepting a job that’s beyond her ability to cope with and requires a long commute as well. The real criticism should be aimed at the government for abusing Islam and its principles in such a way as to alienate Simin, Nader and Termeh from it and to reduce Razieh to a child incapable of making independent moral decisions. There is a suggestion in the film that Simin has told Nader that Razieh has confided in her of her (Razieh’s) doubts about the cause of her miscarriage and that Nader uses what Razieh has told Simin and Razieh’s own simple religious faith to blackmail both Razieh and Hojjat and make them look bad in front of Hojjat’s family.

The acting all round is top class and viewers will sympathise deeply with the characters and above all Termeh and Somayeh. Moaadi especially gives a great performance as Nader and Sarina Farhadi as the intelligent and sensitive Termeh is also a stand-out performer. Filming with a handheld camera throughout gives the movie a voyeuristic intimacy that involves the audience, particularly in its opening scene in which the audience is placed in the position of the court judge mediating between Simin and Nader as Simin applies for divorce. Viewers will see something of the daily grinding pressure on Nader, Razieh and the rest of the cast placed by the strictures of Iranian theocratic society as they try to do the best they can to survive and raise their children; the film clearly demonstrates this pressure is not unique to those characters but applies to all Iranians as they try to negotiate and organise their lives under and around the restrictions the government places on them. No wonder so many people are so desperate to leave the country, so much so that they are willing to pay smugglers and risk dangerous sea voyages to countries such as Australia and Canada.

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