A Separation, the Iranian movie that just won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, demands your attention from its first seconds. Married couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) sit before a judge who will decide whether to grant the wife’s demand of a divorce, which will allow her to move out of the country with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Only we, the audience, are the judge, or rather we are looking at Simin and Nader from the same perspective of the unseen-but-heard adjudicator, who deems their marital problems of little consequence and denies the request. Nader, who wishes to remain in his homeland in part to care for his senile father, is not guilty of cruelty or any of the more serious causes for marital disillusionment; even Simin admits that he’s a decent guy. Throughout the memorable scene, one can hear, beneath the arguments, the type of fissures, the evidence of selfishness and wounded pride, that slowly erode relationships.
Frustrated, Simin moves back in with her own parents, which causes Nader to scramble to find care for his father. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor woman, to babysit. Immediately, things go awry, as Nader expects the highly religious Razieh to tend to his father’s bathroom and hygiene needs, and he complains when her commute makes her late. For her part, she conceals the fact that her debt-ridden husband is unaware of her new job. At one point, she leaves the old man alone and tied to his bed, and soon after, money is missing from the apartment. The immediate consequence of Nader’s forcing Razieh and her young daughter out of his home is her miscarriage. Razieh’s husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) files suit and demands blood money. As the baby would have been a boy, Nader’s “crime” is considered quite serious, and much of the movie’s middle and ending parts take place in a dismal municipal building that serves as court, with a haggard looking judge slipping cubes of sugar into his drink as if in hope that all these screaming people around him will simply fade away.
A Separation is nothing if not harrowing and hard to sit through. While nobody comes across as an absolute barbarian or criminal, all the main characters are flawed, each making a statement here, or taking an action there, which serves only to suck them deeper into a moral and legal abyss. Nader refuses to ask Simin to return out of pride. Simin purports to be leaving, but she travels with her belongings in the car, as if she might consider returning. Meanwhile, the fault lines separating the secular, wealthier main couple and the fundamentalist, impoverished Razieh and Hodjat percolate throughout the movie, increasingly showing signs of oncoming disaster. While the director is careful not to demonize either the characters or Islamic culture, it becomes progressively clearer why Simin might want to take the bookish Termeh out of Iran.
The performances are stellar, especially that of Sarina Farhadi, who quietly suggests the untenable horror of being stuck in the middle of two warring parents and then, having to question her father’s veracity. But as mentioned above, A Separation is a brutal thing to get through, like watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf without the benefit of alcohol. Too often, we just want to scream, only there’s so much of that going on onscreen, nobody would hear.