Friday, July 13, 2018

A Separation (2011)

Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, Iran / France, 123 minutes
Director/writer: Asghar Farhadi
Photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Cast: Payman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi

A Separation is a domestic drama, as sharp and edgy as it gets, about conservative religious values in conflict. It is set in modern-day theocratic Iran but could as easily, with a few changes of garb, involve Old World Roman Catholics, Pennsylvania Amish, New York City patrician liberals, Indian Hindus, or anywhere people make serious commitments to their faith and a moral life. In the framing story, Simin (Leila Hatami) has obtained a visa to leave Iran but she has only a biblical 40 days to act on it. She wants a better life for her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi)—Simin is about the only person here who approximates a liberal. Simin's husband, Nader (Payman Maadi), is sympathetic to the view but refuses to leave because his elderly father has dementia and still needs his care. ("Does he even realize you are his son?" Simin argues. "I know he is my father," Nader responds.) Termeh seems inclined to stay with Nader. The situation appears unresolvable. Simin says she will file for divorce and, as the movie begins, leaves Nader to live with her parents in the meanwhile.

Because Simin was a primary caretaker of Nader's father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi)—a hulking brute who barely speaks from inside his dim fog, a rarely sympathetic onerous responsibility made leaden flesh—now the family's life becomes even more complex. Nader finds a woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to come in days to care for the old man. As it happens, Razieh is an even more conservative Muslim. And there are other complications. The job pays little and she has to commute a long way to get there. She cannot arrive early enough to see Nader before he goes to work in the morning. She has to bring her young daughter with her. She is pregnant. Nader's father has begun to soil himself and Razieh must consult religious authorities about whether it is a sin to help him clean up and change his clothes. She hides details of the job from her own husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), because she knows what his opinion would be about whether it is a sin. Things only get worse from this point. The story is tightly wound, as events transpire organically, growing into a drama so intense that the movie can dispense entirely with musical cues. The narrative carries it.

Among the many conflicts in this story, perhaps the most striking is the modern world and conservative religious values. The life of Nader and Simin looks like any life we know in large urban settings. At least one person in a household must have and keep a demanding job, preferably professional, that occupies most of their days and rarely acknowledges outside requirements. They must commute to these jobs, sometimes long distances, using public transportation or a car if they can afford one. They must see to raising their children and to their many financial obligations. They must meet these responsibilities, though there is often little to help them. Their lives are fragmented and distracted across competing claims. Exhaustion is the most typical way of living day to day. And while religion offers to bring a certain structure to this chaos, its rules too often are vague or only present more conflict. That it is even a question, for example, of whether it is moral for a woman to help a sick old man when there is no other adult in the house speaks to the confusion religion can cause.

A Separation plays a little coy when its title takes the singular, because there are multiple separations going on here. The marital separation of Simin and Nader—one that neither of them wants, by the way—is only the most obvious. Nader's father has separated from reality. Razieh is separated from her child as an indirect result. In the end, in a devastating moment that director and writer Asghar Farhadi lingers on long, long, long, Termeh will be separated from one of her parents. Virtually all of these characters are separated one from another, even when they are closely bonded—separated by the demands of modern life, social roles, and the requirements of religion. We can finally recognize it as a larger overarching separation we've grown more comfortable living with as "compartmentalization"—that is, you just worry about your job, and then you worry about getting home from it or back to it, and then you worry about what's going on at home. If you have some extra time, you can worry about a vacation. But it's always one thing at a time, because that's the only way you can manage to do it. All middle-aged adults know there really is no such thing as multitasking. There is only doing things and exhaustion.

Ultimately, that may be what A Separation is best at illuminating. It's not an exotic visit to so-foreign Iran—other than the fact that all girls and women have something draped over their heads, it could be anywhere. One thing, in our familiar modern compartmentalized world, simply keeps leading to the next for each of the five major characters, with the vectors crisscrossing, deflecting, threatening to spin out of control. We all know as well the vertiginous sense of what it feels like when our lives enter these kinds of "bad phases." We also know they will pass. "It's a good life if you don't weaken"—that's another way of putting it.