Following its own merciless and tragic logic, Asghar Farhadi’s divorce parable A Separation is deceptively straightforward, exposing the loss of humanity beyond bitter recriminations.
Scenes From A Marriage by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Berlin doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle red-carpet sunshine of Cannes, but it is consistently good at picking great Golden Bears. While we may have been deprived of Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey for too long, previous winners such as Fatih Akin’s Head On, Claudia Llosa’s La Teta Asustada and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World have romped on to worldwide acclaim. Like Kim Longinotto’s Divorce Iranian Style, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation revolves around a Sharia divorce court. There are no dramatic histrionics or grandstanding speeches. Instead the couple are civil, generous and polite. There’s even a hint that they still love each other, Simin just wants to leave Iran with her family, while Nader refuses to leave his Alzheimer’s addled father behind. But as the die are cast and Simin leaves the family home, she sets in motion a chain of events that puts an even greater wedge between them.
Opening inside a photocopier, its green light tracing the screen back and forth, swiping identity cards and procedural papers, A Separation is an unavoidable accumulation of process – from the human, if stern, court decisions to the merciless logic which sees Nader and Simin return to the courts to face a murder charge and a bitter divorce. It all stems from a modern Iranian wife’s urge to move abroad so her daughter may have more opportunities. And while her divorce plea is a twist of the knife, a gameplay calculated to win her what she wants, she can’t know how her Taming Of The Shrew style comedy will turn into a tragedy of errors.
Unable to take time off work to care for his ailing father, Nader hires help in the shape of Razieh. From a religious, working class family she has to sneak into Tehran to work behind her indebted husband’s back. So devout that when Nader’s father wets himself she can’t care for him without first consulting the imam. And she’s pregnant. Only Nader doesn’t know it, we don’t think. And after his father escapes out of the apartment to buy a paper, Razieh ties the runaway septuagenarian to the bed so she can attend a gynaecologist’s appointment. But when Nader returns home from work early to discover his father almost asphyxiated and money missing from the apartment, he pushes her out the door with no wages, flustered and frustrated. Losing her unborn baby, Razieh accuses Nader of pushing her down the stairs and it’s not long before Nader finds himself before the courts again. Charged with murder, it’s up to his daughter Termeh to decide whether he knew of Razieh’s pregnancy or not and whether her parents should pay the couple their blood money.
With the revelation of each fact carefully calculated, A Separation can make the search for truth feel like a mechanical turn of the screw. But its taut script belies a very human story forged through very lifelike performances. Iranian justice here is refreshingly humane; Simin enters her divorce plea so that the imam may solve her marriage problems. And this is not the repressive Sharia law of stonings and beheadings, but rather a mediated system of honour, with even a wry admonishment for Simin’s unpatriotic assertion there’s no future for her daughter here. Even in a murder trial, victim and defendant are mutually respectful. It’s a process dependent on faith, oaths on the martyrs and forthright humility – a harmonious counsel that can’t protect its applicants from its life-shattering verdicts.
Most deeply affected is Termeh, forced over the top from childhood innocence into a judicial no-man’s-land. Not only must she choose between truth and perjury in defence of her father, but she must also choose her future guardian. At the beginning she’s a nervous child, peering through windows and doorways at her parents’ bitter spectacle. By the end her suffering has become indelible, as irreversible as her becoming a woman – her playful squabbling with Razieh’s daughter Somayeh transformed into a mutual look of anxious mistrust. Here family obligations compete with faith and life – when Razieh refuses to (falsely) swear Nader’s guilt on the Koran, her husband Hodjat resorts to hitting himself in abject frustration.
Yet despite all this acrimony, there’s an unbreakable bond between the sexes – a strata of male fraternity over a substrata of female sisterliness. Nader stands by his dad, desperate and frustrated, crying as he showers him. And while Nader appeals to Hodjat as a father and a husband upon learning of the loss of their child, an outreach that very nearly ends in blows, it’s Simin who brokers the truth from Razieh – the bitter sting in the tale that Razieh was hit by a car while chasing after Nader’s father in the street. The hopelessness of the outcome – a worthless, almost bathetic resolution, no winners only losers, is reflected in Nader’s battered windscreen, a violence born of frustration, facing life’s tragedies with no-one to blame.
And yet it’s a film of delicious observations; Somayeh innocently playing with Nader’s father’s oxygen supply or Razieh racing down stairs into the street after the old man in an exhilarating flutter of black chador. That the final twist comes as such a heartrending shock is testament to Farhadi’s superbly paced control. There are no heroes or villains in this courtside drama, only a tangled web of hardships, obligations and emotions. And while to all intents and purposes, A Separation is the story of Nader and Simin’s divorce, its real story is a fall from grace, the bitter tale of man’s irrevocable separation from humanity.
A Separation is released in the UK on 1st July 2011