Iranian drama ‘A Separation’ apprehends family crisis

Simin wants to leave Iran. Her husband, Nader, will not allow it because he believes this will be bad for their child, Termeh. Simin sues for divorce. The two separate, and Nader is left on his own to care for their young daughter and his Alzheimer’s-suffering father. So begins Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” a supreme cinematic achievement and a testament to how the universal can be reached through intense specificity.

Nader hires a subservient woman named Razieh to be his father’s caretaker, but the work proves too overwhelming. When she leaves her post on a curious errand, Nader comes home to find his money stolen and his father chained to the bed. His ensuing confrontation with Razieh escalates a series of rash decisions, putting everyone involved in peril and twisting the film’s narrative into a briery thicket of open questions.

At a lean two hours, “A Separation” is a master class in economy. Shot handheld and stripped of sensational music or editing that would otherwise tell us how we should feel, Farhadi imposes no emotional cues, letting his naturalistic actors and screenplay do the work. For a film so rooted in the oft-tilled soil of banal human crisis, “A Separation” is suspenseful, hewing its drama out of a quiet gathering of details. Its only hard-hitting payoff comes in the form of, literally, a rock through a windshield.

As Nader, Peyman Moadi is an actor of great energy and strength. His Nader is not a hardy, fundamentalist patriarch. He cares about his family so much, in fact, that he is willing to lie to them. We tend to see Nader, head hung low, pensive, as if behind his moat lies a thousand secrets. As his stony wife Simin, Leila Hatami defies any gender stereotypes or uninformed notions we might have about women in Iran. She does not subordinate herself to anyone, not even her own husband. Though the trope of children’s all-seeing, rosy-colored eyes is a recycled one, Farhadi establishes Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) as the lens through which we ought to view “A Separation.” We have our own biases and emotional loyalties, but they don’t hold.

Asghar Farhadi, whose unembellished formalism eschews access to where his sympathies lie, makes us the jury. In the opening scene, Simin and Nader look at the camera, and at us, head-on. Simin gives her reasons for divorce and why she will sue Nader if he doesn’t give it to her. Nader proffers his counterpoint. Farhadi does not impose any politics or browbeating moralism on them, nor does he explicitly suggest that their cause is some precipitant of a fractured national ideology.

“A Separation” happens to be set in Iran, but this kind of thing could happen anywhere at any time. The film’s ambiguity is not a cover-up for laziness or a lack of ideas, but rather it’s a trust in the audience. This “Rashomon”-ian conceit pushes “A Separation” into the realm of the interactive, inviting an interpretive community of viewers.

Much of “A Separation” is confined to Nader’s small apartment, but Farhadi intercuts this claustrophobia with urban settings, particularly a clerical office, where characters are pitted against not only the bureaucratic rigmarole of leaving the country, but also the legal battles initiated by Nader’s conflict with Razieh and her ill-tempered husband. Reflective of both Iranian life and our own cultural moment, these scenes are what, incidentally, give the film its universal pull.

“A Separation” is nominated for best foreign language film in this year’s Academy Awards. It will win. This is the kind of film that makes you think, and talk. I know little about Iran or its politics and Islamic practices, but no gradient of knowledge is necessary to understand “A Separation” or to be moved by it. Farhadi assumes nothing of his audience, and this is the film’s great success. He is brave enough to admit that, in his heart of hearts, he doesn’t know the answers to his own questions.