By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“A Separation,” the excellent new movie from Iran (and likely Oscar winner for best foreign-language picture) begins on a feminist note. A couple with obvious marital differences sits before a judge.
She wants to leave Iran. More opportunity, she feels, for both herself and their adolescent daughter.
He doesn’t. Mostly because he refuses to abandon his elderly father who has Alzheimer’s…
For whom, she’s become the de facto caretaker, she points out. And so on. And so forth.
The only way she can get out of the country is to get a divorce (hence their stint before the judge). Even so, it’s unlikely she’ll be able to bring her daughter with her. Shades of “Not Without My Daughter,” a little seen and extremely affecting Sally Field melodrama from the mid ’90s (check it out and you’ll see how prescient it is).
But as complicated and important as issues of women’s rights are (in Iran or, increasingly, anywhere), “A Separation” soon takes another tact. It transitions into a dense, compelling, even comic examination of family and all the dysfunctions therein.
The judge refuses to grant a divorce. The frustrated Simin (Leila Hatami) departs anyway, moving in with her parents and leaving her husband to carry on the duties of “family” life.
And here’s where the movie gets really good: her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), is not a monster. Things have simply worked for him, as they were. He can’t understand why they didn’t for her.
Nader tries to take on the caretaker role, but soon learns just how demanding it is. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) — a deeply religious lower-class woman whose husband would not approve of what she’s doing. So she does it in secret.
What ensues is miscommunication taken to a monstrous degree. Along with some religious-tinged moral relativity. Either way, Nader’s blinkered but good-faith efforts lead to a very bad situation. A sort of slow-motion tsunami of ill-considered options.
Who’s at fault?
That’s writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s genius. It’s almost impossible to say.
“A Separation” becomes a “Rashomon”-like conundrum, with no one (especially the audience) certain where blame lies. Or, more importantly, what would constitute justice for all.
I’ve cited him before, but it applies here almost too well. As master filmmaker Jean Renoir says, “The real hell is everyone has his reasons.”
“A Separation” achieves a delicate balance between the foreign and the familiar. Most of us have never experienced the rigid cultural/religious context in which it unfolds —especially as Nader’s situation becomes increasingly perilous.
Yet, somehow, we’ve all been there. These terms of endearment may play by different rules, but we know where they can lead, be it in Iran or Indiana.