“A Separation” is a film about the interaction between two unhappy families, each unhappy in their own way. They are not alike in dignity; no, these families share religion, country and culture, but are separated by economics. Poverty is a universal hardship.
As we’ve seen in recent times, unemployment damages the viability and stability of families and can cause strife, anger, and violence. But a steady income only cushions misfortune—sickness, death and divorce are trials faced regularly. In this country, stories of depression and divorce are commonplace. We believe that we are free to make our own mistakes and face the consequences. The free market dictates our financial success and our personal relationships are based on individual desire and whim. Americans attribute these circumstances to the freedoms built into our society.
But in a country like Iran, with its national religion and Sharia law, such decisions are not so simple. Its people are ruled by the iron fist of theocratic rule. And yet, “A Separation,” the Iranian film that won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is a story that transcends cultural differences and challenges current American impressions of Iran. Shades of dangerous oppression are present in the film, but their bureaucracy doesn’t seem that much different than ours. More importantly, the people of Iran are like the people anywhere else. They love their families, fear losing them, and protect them when they are threatened.
The film begins with Nadir and Simin ending their marriage. Simin has successfully petitioned the government to leave the country to go abroad, hoping to take their 11-year-old daughter Telmah away from Iran. Nadir refuses to leave because he must care for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. The two cannot come to an agreement; Nadir has given Simin a divorce but will not give up custody of Telmah. The separation is granted, however, and Simin leaves to move in with her mother. This leaves Nadir with a need for a daytime caretaker for his father. Simin suggests the sister-in-law of a friend, Razieh, a pregnant woman who is looking to make ends meet, as her husband has been unemployed for over a year.
But Islam has strict rules concerning male-female relationships, and a woman caring for an old man who is not her husband has its limits. An agreement is reached, and although the commute is long and the work is hard, Razieh begins working for Nadir. We learn over the course of the film that Razieh and her husband Hodat are plagued by creditors. Eventually, there is a question of irresponsibility on the part of Razieh’s caretaking, as well as a question of missing money. This leads to an altercation between Razieh and Nadir, as well as a miscarriage of questionable origin. Charges are filed and these two families become entwined in serious legal strife.
“A Separation” is a quiet film, one that is dependent on good actors and good writing. It is a powerful drama that is both engaging and accessible for all audiences. There is no overwhelming score to speak of; instead the filmmakers rely on tension and dialogue to pull the audience into each scene. The characters are real people, with real and understandable motivations. Here we have a film without an antagonist—the families are at odds with each other out of loyalty and obstinance, and while the situation is unfortunate and complex, we can see why those involved behave the way they do. Like most of the problems of the world, this is one that could be solved if the involved parties would simply act reasonably. The unreasonable nature of the characters in “A Separation” is what makes it so real.