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A Separation opens on a married couple, Nader and Simin, sitting in front of a judge. Simin (Leila Hatami) is filing for a divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) because she wants to take their 11 year old daughter Termeh to live abroad, arguing that there is a better future for her outside of Iran. Nader refuses to leave the country because he is the sole carer of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Despite their bickering, the judge refuses to grant them a divorce. Back home, Simin packs her things and goes to live with her parents; Nader stays with his father. Given the choice, Termeh decides to stay with Nader.
Alone caring for his senile father, Nader tries his best with Termeh, helping her with her homework and teaching her various chores. However, working whilst caring for both his daughter and his father is too much for him, so through his now-estranged wife he employs a carer for his father. The carer, Razieh, is 4 months pregnant and arrives with her young daughter. Her husband is crippled by depression and she admits to Nader that she is taking the job (along with its gruelling commute by bus) only because they are being harassed by loan sharks. The job entails more than she bargained for, as Nader's father's condition has deteriorated so badly that he is incontinent.
When an incident occurs that seems to be superficially Nader's fault, resulting in a police investigation, Nader is torn between taking full responsibility for something he believes he didn't do (and possibly facing jail time) or lying to cover himself in front of the daughter he has tried so hard to raise right. But not everything is as it seems, and no one is telling the whole truth, in this part family drama, part courtroom saga.
Despite a complex cast of characters, A Separation has a simple narrative told in a fairly straightforward way. Free from directorial embellishments, there's nothing here in either camerawork or the editing that distracts from the intimacy and clarity writer and director Asghar Farhadi conjures in his work. Every character in A Separation has a motive that sharply defines them, even if it isn't immediately clear, leading to definite character development that strays just on the right side of obviousness.
At the center of Simin and Nader's world is their daughter, Termeh, but she is pushed to the periphery as her parents fight in increasingly brutal ways over her future. With hardly any lines for the first 90 minutes of this 2 hour film, Termeh undoubtedly wields the most influence by choosing to stay with her father when her parents separate, thus setting off the entire chain of events that culminate into the film's main conflict. Likewise, Nader's father is a constant presence in every one of Nader's scenes outside of the courtroom. This is despite him never saying a word - or, rather, the words he does utter having no meaning. He is bundled into the car, left in bed with an oxygen tank, or in the background of every scene like a weight on the mind.
This is just one example of how the composition of scenes is especially well realised (most of all in the final shot of the film). Not only does the disease of Nader's father loom like a shadow, the positioning of Nader and Simin in scenes together is careful and deliberate. They don't touch one another at all, and often stand as far apart as possible while still being in the same shot. Their apartment, too, though lived-in and comfortable-looking, has an indefinable blankness and emptiness to it that is likely symbolic to their crumbling marriage.
Nader and Simin's urban middle-class lifestyle is a world away from the poverty alluded to by carer Razieh. Every part the harassed mother to a (very cute) 4 year old girl, Razieh has a habit of lightly biting on an edge of her headscarf when stressed. She is also deeply religious, more so than any other character, to the point where she consults a religious hotline to ask if washing Nader's father after he had soiled himself was a sin. It is Razieh's faith that is tested when she is forced to choose between keeping quiet to protect her husband - or telling the truth and leaving him potentially suicidal.
As in the opening shot of the film, where Simin and Nader are arguing, many scenes take place in a courtroom. In these scenes, it is through the framing of the shot that the audience adopts the role of judge. This is perhaps the most effective trial sequence I've seen. Something about the drab little room and the bored-looking officials (who become increasingly sweaty throughout) is deeply claustrophobic and gives the scenes where characters argue an extra edge of desperation.
At its international release, A Separation won many awards in many categories where it was the first Iranian film ever to do so. It might also possibly the last, as Iran subsequently tightened its censorship laws. However, at least when I watched the film, the idea of Iran as the fanatic monochromatic state it is painted as in the media is far away. In A Separation the lives of the Iranian characters feel intimate and involving, replete with all the heartache that comes from pride and loyalty in any given family.