Under the Veil
A Separation - or Nader and Simin, A Separation, to lend it its full title - is a damn good reminder that surface level simplicity can mask some serious depth. An Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation's narrative isn't the most original tale that has ever been told. It's the delivery that counts, though, and it's what makes this film something very special indeed.
Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a middle class and relatively liberal (for Iran, anyway) couple with a young daughter named Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They're stuck in a purgatory of sorts - separated, but the courts refusing a full divorce. The only reason Simin hasn't straight up left the country entirely is her attachment to her daughter. Complicating matters is Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), suffering from Alzheimer's and in need of a full time minder. Nader hires the deeply religious and rather pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father during the day, but things quickly go awry when Razieh realises she has to touch the elderly man, an act strictly prohibited by her religion. Nader agrees to hire Razieh's unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) to take over the position, but Razieh is reluctantly forced to return when Hodjat's debts catch up with him. It isn't long before a misunderstanding between Razieh and Nader leads to an act of violence that will complicate the lives of both families.
It's a simple enough foundation, ultimately descending into a lengthy legal battle between the two very different families. It's all down to how Farhadi handles it. Each character is given a credible motivation, and it goes an awful long way towards pulling you into the narrative and ensuring their actions have very tangible impacts. Nader is determined to prove his innocence, no matter what it takes - he's just certain he's in the right. Simin simply wants to ensure her daughter is safe, while Termeh's actions are constantly influenced by her deep-rooted desire to get her parents back together. On the other side, Razieh's loyalty to religious and social expectations underpin her every move, and Hodjat's short temper and frustration are defining character traits. Most importantly, though, every single one of them are fundamentally (pun partially intended) decent people, thrown into a situation that's out of their depth. No-one's perfect, but they're all easy to relate to. It's pretty much impossible to take sides, even when it appears the situation is crystal clear - the reality is it never is, and none of these people are 'wrong'. It makes every complication all the more effective and heart-breaking.
This eventually becomes the cinema of desperation - each character driven by their distinct motivations into varying levels of frustration. A web of lies and mistruths develop on both sides, but you can't begrudge the characters when every one of them is certain they're correct. Hodjat poses the real threat, his temper threatening to escalate into something more dangerous. However, he's the one least certain of events, and a last act revelation puts us right back on his side. And watching innocent Termeh get caught up in it all becomes the most painful of all. The scenes where she willingly participates in a small but significant mistruth just to get her father and mother back together is powerful stuff.
The characters are wonderfully crafted individuals, and the performances are very much the successes the roles demand. Farhadi's direction is again pretty basic, but to his credit he just keeps the camera squarely focused on the people without any unnecessary faffing about. It's a tightly paced, tightly famed and tightly edited production, minus the emotional trickery of something like non-diegetic music. It's a masterly exercise in simplicity of cinematic storytelling.
Most impressively at all, the audience is always allowed make up their own mind. There is a lot of social commentary here - religious orthodoxy is up for scrutiny, as well as the class structure and gender politics in contemporary Iran and more basic concepts like justice and family. It's not necessarily a critique of these things though - the ideas are presented with an admirable balance. They're ideas presented through the characters, and as I said before no-one here is 'wrong'. Initially an audience member might reject a particular character on moral grounds, but it's unlikely there won't be a moment when you won't feel for them no matter your views on their beliefs. A sequence where Razieh is asked to swear on a Quran, for example, is heartbreaking viewing no matter whether you relate to her plight or not. A Separation is distinctly Iranian in many of its thematic examinations, but most of the ideas are vividly universal - like the best world cinema, the film transcends the merely national.
In a rare moment of visual brashness, Farhadi chooses a final image that lingers over the entirety of the closing credits. It's an ambiguous conclusion, without any obvious resolution. But that's not what matters - all the points have already been made, and any lingering plot threads are ultimately irrelevant. Instead, the crushingly silent final moments simply surmise the key concerns of the conflicts that have taken place over the previous two hours. In A Separation there are no easy resolutions, and the only winners are the audience.