A Separation (2011)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi
When reflecting upon this decade in film, one thing becomes very apparent: it has been a stellar ten years for International cinema. Just this year, South Korea’s Parasite demonstrated a masterclass in storytelling, following on from the country’s success with the thrilling Burning in 2018 to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, whilst Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican drama Roma recently took the world by storm thanks (in part) to its Netflix distribution, all the while Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski made two even better black and white films in the form of Cold War and Ida. Throw in Amour, The Hunt and Son of Saul, and it becomes very clear that foreign language films have ruled the decade.
And the one that stands out above all else? Iran’s family drama A Separation, written and directed by one of world cinema’s most underrated filmmakers, Asghar Farhadi.
The film stars Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi as Simin and Nader respectively, a couple on the verge of separation because of their different needs. In the film’s terrific opener, we are asked to cast judgment as the two leads address the camera directly, explaining their opposing desires – Simin wants to leave the country with her husband and daughter, while Nader instead wishes to remain in Iran and care for his suffering father, a wish reciprocated by their daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi’s daughter Sarina). The court rules insufficient grounds for divorce, so Simin instead packs her things and moves in with her parents. The relationship between Simin and Nader is not the kind of passionate, star-crossed romance seen between Zula and Wiktor in 2018’s Cold War, but instead a strained and tired marriage. Nader hires Razieh (portrayed by a sensational Sareh Bayat; the film’s standout) to help care for his father whilst he is working. Razieh is a deeply religious, often vulnerable woman who becomes very reluctant to perform particular tasks as she worries it may contradict her beliefs. From here, chaos ensues, with the film centring around a devastating incident involving Razieh and Nader; a web of lies and deceit beginning to spiral out of control as the quest for the truth begins.
What’s special about A Separation is its narrative’s refusal to pick a side with any given character. There’s a fantastic ensemble here and every character has clear and understandable motives. Whilst Simin’s desire to leave the country may seem selfish, it is out of belief that this is the right move for the whole family; while Nader is probably the most sympathetic character because of his complications with not only his marriage but his father too, and is understandably reluctant to leave his father in such a condition; whilst their daughter (who generally favours her father throughout) is caught in the middle.
It is carer Razieh who is without doubt the most complex character however; she is continuously pushed to her limits and finds herself making rash decisions stemming from her mental and physical exhaustion. Not only is she dealing with Nader’s father and the family drama surrounding him, but also her erratic husband Hojjat (played by Shahab Hosseini, who stars in Farhadi’s other Oscar winning film this decade, The Salesman). With these characters, the director has subverted the westernized ideas of Iranian life and instead shows the country’s growing class divide, especially presented through its two couples. Razieh and Hojjat – at least in the view of Simin and Nader – are an old fashioned, somewhat backward couple; a dynamic that western audiences may associate the country’s traditions with. Our two main leads are much more progressive and modernised by comparison, as demonstrated through Simin’s desire to move to the west and her willingness to challenge the marriage she finds herself in.
In many ways, A Separation reads like a play – you don’t realise until the very end that there is absolutely no music or special sound effects throughout the film, which is of testament to the engaging and delightful dialogue which earned Farhadi’s screenplay an Oscar nomination. The lack of musical composition is a technique that has been adopted by many filmmakers since, including in Alfonso Cuaron’s aforementioned Roma which relied on the film’s stunning cinematography to help the narrative instead. There are three or four scenes in A Separation that are particularly stellar, often involving all of the main characters arguing with an increasingly frustrated judge as they give their own version of events. These characters are being hurt from the actions of those around them, even though nobody is really in the wrong. It’s the kind of devastating poignancy that is often associated with the work of Michael Haneke, with the film’s agonizing tone not too dissimilar to some of the Austrian auteur’s finest pictures.
The camerawork from Farhadi also works to encourages the audience to really feel up close to the events occurring, not as intimately as Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul, but enough to allow us to observe and analyse the characters and their actions thoroughly. It’s an incredibly hard feat to pull off, but Farhadi does it exquisitely, creating a story that feels absolutely lived in and creating characters that feel like anybody you may come across in everyday life. It has one of the strongest screenplays ever put to screen, so boldly allowing these characters to affect the story through their decisions and choices rather than any kind of outside forces.
Conclusively, A Separation is truly one of the most remarkable films of the decade. Whilst many of the decade’s strongest foreign language films boast mesmerizing achievements from its leading actors (Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt, Emmanuelle Riva in Amour and Steven Yeun in Burning, to name but a few), Farhadi’s masterpiece stands out because of its sensational ensemble of characters and the performances to go along with them. Each person in the film feels real and the picture doesn’t hide behind technical trickery to ever distract from the story unfolding in front of us – it is impeccably told and perfectly balances each character in a way that ensures everybody is understandable and complex. It is a tragic, heart-breaking tale of a family who will never be the same again, and the devastating effects that separation can have on those around them too.
Written by Bradley Weir
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