A married couple in Iran have amicably agreed to a divorce. There is only one sticking point: who does their daughter, Termeh, live with? If Termeh goes with her mother Simin, they'll be leaving Iran within a few weeks on a visa. If she stays with her father Nader, she'll be helping him care for his rapidly ailing father in the throes of Alzheimer's. The judge hearing the divorce case refuses to grant custody to either parent. Simin moves out of the house, forcing Nader to hire a full time caretaker for his sick father. Until the caretaker actually shows up, A Separation is a fairly typical divorce/custody drama placed in a less explored context. Iranian law is largely based on the teaching of Islam. The faith of the nation helps define legal proceedings. As such, there are cultural complexities that make many simple interactions we might take for granted in the United States taboo within that nation.
A Separation hinges its entire premise on interactions between men and women in Iran. Razieh, the caretaker, is put into distress within minutes of arriving on the job. Nader's father has soiled himself and she is afraid that it would be a sin for her to physically touch him. He is not family and she knows that she is not allowed to touch him unless it is an extreme emergency.
Everything spirals out of control from there. Writer/director Asghar Farhardi crafts a tense and unpredictable drama predicated on faith, truth, and gender roles. Every character introduced by name winds up in front of a judge arguing in an ever expanding case of he said, she said with blood money on the line. No character is safe from having a darker side emerge when dealing with the legal disputes.
The only potential problem with A Separation is how much the film hinges on the complexity of the Iranian legal system. Obviously, as this is an Iranian film from an Iranian filmmaker, the context of the story is clear for its target audience. Buoyed by international success at festivals and awards ceremonies (it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and was nominated for Original Screenplay), the film is being viewed by a much wider audience. The linear plot is clear and the build of tension is undeniable. I just wonder how much more effective the long series of investigation scenes would be with a better understanding of the laws and cultural customs of Iran. The big issues are clearly explained early on; it's the little things that go beyond my knowledge and understanding.
You do not need the full context of the legal system to understand how well made A Separation is. The movement of the camera is particularly impressive. Seemingly every character is treated in a slightly different way. Razieh's husband Hojjat, a man quick to temper, is given quick cuts and sharp angle changes to reflect his temperament. Razieh gets a slower, more ponderous camera, as each decision she makes is a thoughtful one based on years of teaching. Termeh's moments are quick and smooth, reflecting her attempts to stay away from conflict and just keep moving forward. Simin and Nader are both centered on the screen as much as possible. Simin moves more during her scenes, adding a fluidity that goes against the far more grounded shots of Nader. The camerawork is a clever touch that visually defines the differences between the major characters in the story.
A Separation is so well executed with such a great sense of tension that I struggle to think of a reason not to see it. You might not understand all the complexities of the legal process, but that process is only used to bring out rich character based conflict and twists.
Thoughts on A Separation? You know I want to hear them. Sound off below.