I saw Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation after I wrote my Parenthood in 2011 Cinema post and I didn’t want to just write a sentence or two and ruin that post’s flow. And I’ll probably decide to discuss the movie outside its gender/familial dynamics. So voilà.
A Separation gives attention to how members of its society views and examines motherhood and womanhood, among the many complex topics upon which the movie beautifully touches. Nader (Peyman Maadi) deals with his father’s (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) incapacity by hiring working class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a daytime housekeeper and caretaker for his father while he leaves for work. After a dispute between them – some money is missing in Nader’s drawers and he of course accuses her of theft – he pushes her, possibly leading to her miscarriage.
If Nader is found guilty of causing the miscarriage, it’s murder under Iranian law. Nader’s pre-trial takes place in some bureaucrat judge’s office, where he has to bring witnesses like his daughter Termeh and her tutor to prove that he didn’t know – I also can’t help but point how as much as it’s perfunctory for both families to bring their children in to exonerate themselves, it’s still simultaneously hella classy and tragic, the daughters seeing handcuffs and Termeh seeing her father wearing a pair and being one of them criminals.
He has to prove that he couldn’t hear a conversation revealing Razieh’s pregnancy, etc. Both Razieh and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) question Nader’s and the testimonies supporting him. How could he not have known? It’s obvious just by looking at her. I can’t look up Nader’s verbatim but he says something like how he couldn’t tell that she was pregnant because of the chador. I didn’t want to read it in a way that a first world perspective would, I coming from a third world background who sees the chador as a choice. Nevertheless, I still can’t help but hear this line as a critique of Islam, that article of clothing oppressively weighing her down.
I couldn’t see this movie any other way, as the chador is inescapably bound to Razieh’s character. It accentuates the waddle that she has as she goes up the stairs to Nader’s apartment, or her ghostlike running as she looks for Nader’s father or her hurried face and hands as she tells Hodjat not to take Nader’s money. Bayat’s award-winning performance fleshes out a woman whose duties as a mother and wife of a man drowned in debt is showing through her physicality, with or without that article of clothing. But that doesn’t mean that her words don’t matter neither, her Streepian revelation of ‘I have doubts’ contributing to the moral duplicity that the movie shows with sympathy and without judgment.
The movie can be seen as one with two halves. We spent the first half with Razieh while the second is where Nader’s wife Simin (Leila Hatami) dominates. A Western rendition of this story would have had to soften Simin up or villain-ize her. I don’t begrudge her for leaving home to move back in to her mother’s or being unable to take care of her father-in-law because she’s always at work although I know one or two wackos who would find a problem with that.
It is uncomfortable watching her push Termeh around, the latter reluctant to leave her father and Iran. Or that both husband and wife lock each other into a staring contest, waiting for the other to blink so he or she can blink back. She packs her bags into her car, waiting for Nader to agree with everything she wants. They’ve gotten to the point when compromise, an iomportant part in maintaining a family, is impossible, even if both can’t be seen as in the wrong. Both are proud, which I read as a masculine trait while neither character is ‘feminized.’ In the portrayal of their relationship, they’re even – their qualities and decisions aren’t divisible by stereotypes, Nader and Simin are the more ‘progressive’ yet flawed couple, unlike Razieh and Hojjat who are still bound by religion and patriarchy.
Let’s not forget that their separation occurs because she wants a better life for her family, their pre-trial being that electric Arthur Miller-like scene that sets the movie’s humanizing tone. She doesn’t have to prove anything as the story lets us know what her intentions are in the first place. And let me just say that my hesitation to view these characters’ tribulations as a critique of Iran’s theocracy and justice system. Every country sucks, every bureaucrat seen with disdain, especially ones who can sentence others although they don’t know the ‘whole story.’ Whether we’ve been struck by quandary like this, the movie still calls on our fears that we can be maligned. Either if it’s on a criminal standpoint, when people can get jailed for things they didn’t know were wrong – and you can’t get acquitted for ‘not knowing what you did was wrong,’ on a legal standpoint – or just under others’ piercing eyes of.
If the mothers in this movie symbolize a the state of benig broken, Razieh transgressing by taking care of two fractured families while Simin being the point of one fracture, the fathers then posit themselves as the fortress of the family. Nader tries to teach Farsi words to Termeh, despite her protestations that her school system prefers Arabic words. But if that means that he’s the ‘conservative’ stronghold of the family, then I don’t know whether telling his daughter that it’s ok to, spoiler, lie in court is deviance or traditional self-preservation. Every scene with Nader and Termeh has this slight sense of danger that a jerk is raising someone who will be a jerk.
Hojjat, however, tries to keep his family afloat through his creditors, sometimes forsaking his wife’s religiosity for their much-needed money. He’s a a man, after years of unemployment and trauma, whose version of protecting his family is harming others. It’s this sort of personal dysfunction that provides us with the most nuanced characters whom we haven’t seen for a long time until now.