“I’m the judge and I’m saying your issue is small”
If there has been one film from 2011 that appears to have found universal appeal throughout the world, its name would be جدایی نادر از سیمین [A Separation]. Found high on many critic’s top ten lists, my anticipation to finally experience its mysteries built up until I could finally take it no longer. Expectations like these never end up being a good practice, however, because the hope almost always ends up too large to meet. When the film’s credits rolled I began to look inside myself to discover what it was I missed. What was wrong with me that I can’t quite see the brilliance everyone else does? This happened a few years back with There Will Be Blood and I believe it has occurred again this year.
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a dramatic work worthy of its accolades and more—there is no doubt. Filmed within the political and religious constraints of Iran, he doesn’t try to hide the import the Qur’an has on the story he delivers. The idea of divorce for Westerners is something so ingrained in our society that more often than not characters are either born from it or stalwart experts in practicing the concept themselves. But while we accept it as the norm these days, to watch it shown so in-your-face within a culture we know little about and have preconceptions of upholding God’s will above all else is jarring. As Western ideas travel abroad to other countries, their assimilation into a more traditional lifestyle will appear out of place. And the different rules governing these concepts make it that much more strange.
For Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), the separation of the title is not born from a lack of love or any wrongdoing by either party. No, the only reason they have found themselves in front of a judge is because Simin believes her matronly duties to protect daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) have evolved to leaving Iran for a better life. It’s a sentiment shared by Nader—the two had already applied for Visas and received them so long ago that the expiration dates were only forty days away. But times changed and trouble came; they were no longer able to up and leave with his father needing 24/7 care from a nasty bout of Alzheimer’s. Simin makes it an issue of her husband loving a man who no longer recognizes him more than a daughter deserving of a better life and Nader—along with the judge—wonders why the nation that raised them is no longer good enough for their child.
Divorce must be a mutual decision in Iran and Termeh’s age of eleven makes it necessary for the same as far as where she will go. Because love isn’t the issue, though, the separation never truly feels as permanent as one may assume. One side hopes the other will come to his senses and leave with her while the other prays the vitriol will die down so they can live together again after the Visas expire. But until then the two must make good on their threats. So Simin moves in with her parents as Termeh remains with father and grandfather. And with school and work keeping them away from caretaking duties during the day, someone must be found to watch over the elderly man—a task falling to a friend of a friend named Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Honest, godfearing, and in need of money, she accepts. It only takes one day, however, to show she may not be cut out for the work.
And this is where Islam comes in along with more universal themes of truth versus lie. It’s the struggle of watching pain and suffering befall our fellow man while we reap the ill-gotten benefits. Razieh fears sin to continue working as she does cleaning up after a man devoid of humility, her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is soon provided half truths with which to spark a legal battle he is more than within his rights to fight, and Nader discovers it only takes one wrong step to lose everything. All stemming from an event that appears much simpler than its complexities reveal, these two families become intertwined by age, accident, violence, and anger. Forgiveness is never able to find a place for intervention as tempers flare and truths become rewritten. Easy answers never are and when an unborn child’s cause of death is under investigation, hard ones are made even harder.
A Separation becomes a puzzle of wrongdoings piling higher and higher as each day turns. Blame is passed around like the common cold as everyone involved looks to find answers while absolving themselves of any fault. What would have happened if Simin took her husband’s need to protect his father more seriously? What if Nader had put his wife and child above a selfish desire to make a virtual stranger comfortable? What if Hodjat had arrived to work on his first day as promised or if Razieh had somehow been able to keep eyes on both her patient and own young daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) running about the apartment? So many little things add up to a tragedy of unspeakable horrors for anyone to have to bear. Was God punishing his followers for their inability to honor their spouses? Was he setting an example for those who lost faith in the union of husband and wife?
The concepts Farhadi throws about are universal, captivating, and impossible to solve. We all find the time where we start to put our own priorities ahead of others or decide to sacrifice those less fortunate in order to survive ourselves. Sometimes the stakes are unbearably high and we become blinded by the need to save those closest to us. So we conveniently forget facts, hide events we know will bring trouble with even more danger possessing worse consequences, and we project our wrongs onto others in order to assuage guilt and allow those around us to carry their own. Parents ruin their children by letting them think lying to protect their own is more important than telling the truth and children let it happen because they don’t know any better. To say no is to never be a family again, but to say yes is to lose a piece of your soul that can never be reclaimed.
Innocence is lost despite class, race, religion, or gender—we all bite from the apple and watch paradise die before our eyes. You may wonder how a divorce can cause murder, but when you think hard enough you’ll see the smallest things in life always hold the greatest power. We bring people into our lives every day and inject ourselves in theirs without knowing the cause or effect we’ll wreak. And in this way A Separation is a perfectly acted version of a story we’ve all experienced in real life and art. Perhaps the locale and stringent doctrines of an exotic religion make it hit some viewers’ harder, but at the end of the day I’m not sure the story is anything more than a brilliantly emotive and resonate example of others I’ve seen before. I don’t mean to say the film is trite or common or lacking in power—it is still one of the best examples of human flaw I’ve ever seen. I guess I just wanted more. But that’s my problem, not the film’s.
 Left to Right: Leila Hatami as Simin and Peyman Moadi as Nader. Photo by Habib Madjidi ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat. Photo by Habib Madjidi ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Kimia Hosseini as Somayeh and Sareh Bayat as Razieh. Photo by Habib Madjidi ©, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics