Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. Starring Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Merila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr.
Note: as part of the Iranian Film Festival, A Separation will be screening twice at Kino Světozor with both English and Czech subtitles; it will open the festival at 19:30 on Wednesday, January 11, and it will also be screened at 20:30 on Saturday, January 14. The film will be released throughout the Czech Republic by Artcam on February 9 (without English subtitles).
A Separation comes to Prague with no shortage of pedigree. After winning top honors at various film festivals throughout the year (including the Berlin International Film Festival), it can be found atop many year-end top ten lists (including Roger Ebert’s). Various critics’ associations (including the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society) have awarded it as the year’s best film. It currently has a 100% on the Tomatometer (64 votes), and sits among the IMDb’s top 100 films.
Expectations could not be higher; more praise could not be bestowed. And I wholeheartedly agree with all of it: A Separation is a masterpiece.
Writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s searing, beautifully-crafted film (its onscreen title translated as Nader and Simin: A Separation) begins efficiently with a single shot that sets up the backstory: husband and wife Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are sitting before an arbitrator during divorce proceedings. We see everything from the arbitrator’s point of view, with Nader and Simin speaking to the camera.
Simin is adamant about leaving Iran (why, exactly, is never explicitly discussed – only “to provide a better future for their daughter”). Nader feels compelled to stay in the country to take care of his father, who has Alzheimer’s. They still care for each other, but Nader is willing to grant Simin the divorce if this is what she has to do. Their teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, daughter of the director), stays with Nader in hopes of keeping the couple together; she knows that Simin won’t leave the country without her.
At this point, we think we know where the film is headed; Nader and Simin agree to a trial separation, leaving Nader to care for his elderly father. But the film splinters off into another direction with the introduction of a second couple with a young daughter: Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who Nader hires to watch his father during the day, and her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini).
From here, the plot takes off on its own, wrapping us up in its intricate story and never letting us go. It’s incredibly well-written: the smallest details, so casually dropped during the early portions of the film, take on much greater significance later. No scene, no piece of dialogue is ever wasted; the level of care that went into the script is breathtaking. There is no music in the film; the story is compelling enough to propel itself, rich enough not to require an emotional underscore.
Surprisingly, there is little outright discussion of religious or political conflict in the film (Farhadi has adopted something of a neutral stance towards politics); instead, A Separation deals with the inherent humanity in its characters’ situation, which is something most of us can relate to.
A major theme in the film involves doing the right thing (telling the truth, for instance) versus doing what’s best for you and your family; characters are often forced to operate on both sides of the line. There are no easy answers; sometimes there are no answers at all. The film ends beautifully, ambiguously, on an unanswered question. We think we might know what the answer is (or what it should be), but are left to ponder it during the closing credits.
The acting, and the level of detail that went into the creation of these characters, is outstanding. Maadi’s Nader is particularly sympathetic: his attempts at logical reasoning to escape his situation are all too real. Hatami, in a more difficult role (as the one who ‘abandons’ the family), is also incredibly effective: surprisingly strong-willed, with those piercing eyes and deep red hair mostly obscured by a headscarf, she’s one of the stronger female protagonists in recent memory.
With A Separation, writer-director Farhadi has instantly established himself as one of the leading voices in Iranian cinema. The film is widely expected to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this year. I think it can do better; with a pool of ten nominees, A Separation should have a real shot at competing for Best Film.