A Separation
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Sony Pictures Classics

While the Iran-Israel conflict threatened to explode into yet another war in the Middle East, filmmakers from both countries were honored together at an event before this year’s Oscars. Each country had a nominee for best foreign film—Footnote, from Israel, and A Separation, the winner, from Iran. The films and their makers had much in common, and the Israelis reported warm exchanges; they had been invited to Tehran and the Iranians to Tel Aviv. It will be a political miracle if that cultural exchange happens, but Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has already achieved a miracle of modern cinema with A Separation.

This unpretentious, low-budget film, which Farhadi says he made for an Iranian audience, has touched the hearts and minds of global viewers. Critics, festival audiences, and cineastes everywhere are united in their praise. In Europe and Asia it was acclaimed best picture of the year. Woody Allen agrees. Totally without glitz and sizzle, A Separation is the thing itself—an art form that speaks to all humanity.

Farhadi’s overseas triumphs may bring his downfall in Iran. The film has fueled the wrath of domestic critics who see him pandering to Western bias. His colleague Jafar Panahi is under house arrest and barred from filmmaking. The theocrats were unhappy about Farhadi’s Oscar acceptance speech, in which he offered his “award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” He said nothing about the suffering caused by the international boycott of Iran, further angering the country’s leaders. They were also displeased about his interaction with uncovered women—Madonna, who handed him a Golden Globe award, and Angelina Jolie, who asked to be in his next film. And there is outrage because A Separation is being shown in Israel. A reception in Iran to honor him was cancelled without explanation.

Yet the authoritarian scolding may not be all bad. Sometimes censorship can be a catalyst for creativity rather than a handicap. A Separation is respectful of Islamic tradition and lacks the vulgarity of Western films. There is no profane language, no prurient behavior or dress, no adrenalized violence or special effects. Allen’s praise can be understood as akin to his admiration of Ingmar Bergman: A Separation has none of his own distancing irony, cynicism, or caricature.

Farhadi, a man of enormous depth and sophistication, reportedly wrote a thesis on pauses and silences in Harold Pinter’s plays. Like Pinter he understands the intricate connection between the psychological and moral dimensions of the human condition, and that subject alone drives the movie. A Separation has no cinematographic exaggerations and yet it is luminous—think of Andrew Wyeth. There are no glamorous or self-important stars. According to Farhadi the only diva-like behavior during his direction came from his own sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarina, who plays eleven-year-old Termeh. The teenager is taller than the man who plays her father; no Hollywood casting director would have given her the part. But she is brilliant, as are all of the cast, who seem to be real human beings, not actors playing parts.

A Separation opens with the camera focused on Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) discussing divorce with an unseen official. This is Iranian justice, a version of sharia, Islamic law.

The body language of the couple eloquently conveys their alienation from each other. Simin, a schoolteacher, has with considerable effort collected all of the necessary documents that will allow the family to emigrate from Iran. Her husband refuses to leave and abandon his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s disease. Simin, in exasperation, tells her husband, “Your father doesn’t even know who you are.” For many years medical thinking in the West held that you could institutionalize your mother, father, or spouse when he or she no longer recognized you. Doctors suggested that this state freed you of responsibility, relieving thousands of people of their feelings of guilt. In A Separation, Nader angrily replies, “Yes, but I know who he is.” In one sentence Farhadi cuts through the fog of “clinical” wisdom and shows us the moral dimension of severing family bonds.

Termeh asks her father why he doesn’t tell the truth. The ‘law,’ he says, doesn’t care.

Simin apparently wants out of Iran and the daily struggle to cope with her demented father-in-law. She does not want her daughter to grow up under “these conditions.” Simin is careful not to spell that out explicitly (the subjugation of women?), but even in her cautious understatement one wonders what the presiding official—and the real-life censors—make of this premise. She wants a divorce because her husband refuses to come with her. She claims he must, in effect, have abandoned her. As the couple bicker, the official quietly explains without banging a gavel that Simin’s claim is insufficient.

The couple’s conflicts are transparent, and they directly engage us because they are not mediated by lawyers, translated into legalese, or coopted by the tactics of zealous advocates—the antithesis of the high-tension courtroom dramas that dominate television and film in the West.

Both parents want the best for their daughter, but Nader is determined to be a devoted son as well as a good father. In perhaps the most unforgettable scene, Nader, beset by legal conflicts, carefully washes his incontinent father. Overcome by love and pain, he rests his body on his uncomprehending father and kisses his back. It is a moment that speaks eloquently to the human condition and yet seems, again, so foreign to Western experience.

Simin moves out to stay with her parents, and Nader has to find someone to look after his father during the day while he is at work and Termeh is at school. Simin hires a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who desperately needs the money. Razieh is a devout Muslim, and in taking on this employment she violates the traditions, if not the law. She has not asked her husband’s permission to take employment, to meet with Nader, and to care for a man. Each of these violations is an insult to the honor of her hot-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is out of work, in and out of prison, and at war with his creditors.

A crisis occurs when she is faced with changing Nader’s incontinent father. Would it be a violation of sacred law? In an odd juxtaposition of religious tradition and contemporary life, Razieh pulls out her cell phone, calls a hotline, and is told by an expert that, in this emergency circumstance, it is permitted. But it is clear that taking care of Nader’s father is beyond her. The situation spirals into disaster and will take Nader back to court, charged with pushing Razieh out the door and causing her to fall down the stairs and miscarry her four-month-old fetus. In Farhadi’s narrative everyone’s moral integrity is at issue. Does Nader lie in court when he swears he did not know Razieh was pregnant? Does Razieh lie when she says Nader’s push caused her to miscarry? Will Nader, who faces three years in prison, make his daughter complicit in his lie?

It is difficult to sort out the tangle of events; no summary could do it justice. Critics have enthused about the film even when they apparently misunderstand the complicated twists in the plot. We, like the characters in the film, leap to mistaken conclusions. In the New Yorker Anthony Lane seems to tell readers that Nader caused the miscarriage, which under Sharia is considered a kind of murder. But it becomes clear that Nader is not at fault.

As the narrative gathers momentum, Termeh emerges as the exemplary moral figure. She has chosen to stay with her father and grandfather, and we watch Nader helping her with her homework, setting the highest standards of disciplined study and honesty. She is learning Persian vocabulary, and her teacher has mistakenly included an Arabic word. Her father insists that she not accept that translation even if the teacher marks her down as she predicts. He is instilling in her his sense of principled rectitude.

Like many daughters who admire their fathers, she expects him to live up to these exacting standards. And as a silent witness to the tangle of events, she knows he is making an exception for his own self-interest when he testifies that he did not know Razieh was pregnant when he pushed her. Termeh gently confronts her father. He admits the truth but explains that when they had come home that day and found his father unconscious on the floor with one arm tied to his bed and Razieh gone, he had become irate. In that moment of anger, he says, he did not know the caretaker was pregnant. Termeh asks her father why he doesn’t tell that to the court, and he lamely responds that the “law” doesn’t care. Nader reflects for a moment (a Pinter-like pause?) and then quite unexpectedly puts the moral-psychological burden on his daughter: if she wants him to tell the truth in court, he will.

Sometimes censorship can be a catalyst for creativity rather than a handicap.

This narrative twist pulls the rug out from under those who want morality in black and white, characters who are good or bad. And so it goes throughout A Separation. The suspense is intensified in moments like this, as Farhadi demonstrates “what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive.”

Simin, foreseeing disaster if Nader goes to prison, organizes a mediation with Razieh’s husband, offering him money to withdraw his legal claim against Nader. But before handing over the money, Nader asks Razieh to swear on the Qur’an that his push caused the miscarriage. By then the angry Hodjat, overwhelmed by debt, just wants the money and insists that his submissive wife swear. But faced with sacrilege, she explains to him that the miscarriage was not Nader’s fault. She had been hit by a car the day before. In fact she left Nader’s father tied to the bed so he would not be able to hurt himself while she saw a doctor about her condition. Hodjat, another supposed man of principle, makes a self-interested decision and insists that she swear nonetheless. His frightened wife risks his wrath, yet she also believes that if she swears falsely on the Qur’an, some tragedy will befall their young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini). Razieh, who is nothing if not meek, takes her stand on the Qur’an. Her husband explodes in rage, hitting himself and not her.

The film ends in family court, where we began. Simin and Nader have apparently agreed to a divorce. They are dressed in black, and perhaps we are to understand that Nader’s father has died. Now the presiding official allows Termeh to decide which parent she will live with. The choice seems to involve leaving the country with her mother or staying in Iran with her father. It is a moment in which all the psychological and moral tensions of the child and her parents are pulled taut. We watch in suspense as the tears gather in their daughter’s eyes and roll down her cheeks. Then the film ends before we know her decision.

Although Farhadi might suffer political consequences for his film, he has repeatedly made clear that he doesn’t take sides. Each of the characters has a point of view, but there is no clear resolution. The result is a brilliant portrait of the human condition, and it seems to me that its genius owes something to censorship, a paradox that Sartre famously captured: “We were never so free as under the German occupation . . . each thought was a conquest . . . each word became as precious as a declaration of principle . . . each gesture had the weight of an engagement.”