Dishonor Codes

‘A Separation’

Watching the superlative Iranian film A Separation, I was reminded of Bleak House, Dickens’s account of a dispute grinding through the wheels of justice and dragging down all involved except those who abandon legal maneuvering to settle matters on a compassionate, person-to-person basis. All this is on display in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning movie, but with one crucial difference: Dickens indicts the legal system itself, while Farhadi’s script makes it clear that it’s not the court that prolongs the personal-injury case at the center of A Separation, but rather the stiff-necked pride and rancor of accusers and accused. A Separation does have political implications, but it is mainly about extrapolitical frustrations and resentments. When apologists for Iran’s theocratic government denounce A Separation, what are they protesting? Fallible humanity?

Nader, a bank employee, has separated from his wife, Simin, because she wants to leave the country while he insists on remaining to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s. He hires as caretaker Razieh—working-class, pious, and pregnant—who doesn’t want her recently fired, fiercely proud husband to learn that she’s taken a job. When a prenatal emergency forces her to temporarily abandon her charge so that she can see her obstetrician, the old man falls out of bed and loses consciousness. Enraged, Nader fires Razieh and pushes her out of the apartment. That night she suffers a miscarriage and blames Nader for it. He is charged with murder. She is charged with abuse.

Deliberately obstructing our view with a half-closed door, director Farhadi makes sure we only glimpse the crucial shove, but we see enough to know it wasn’t the violence Razieh describes to the magistrate. So isn’t she lying? But could the shove have been strong enough to make her tumble halfway down a flight of stairs? Perhaps. Later we hear Nader deny that he knew Razieh was pregnant (he can be charged with killing her unborn child only if he knew). But it turns out he did know, so isn’t this lie against lie? Yet we are not being presented with vile hypocrites. Razieh exaggerates out of sheer outrage, not only at her maternal loss, but also because Nader wrongly accused her of theft as well as negligence. And Nader prevaricates because the one-to-three year sentence he’d have to serve if found guilty would utterly ruin him and probably finish off his father.

The case becomes a nexus of resentments, a blame-game gone berserk. Was Nader forced to hire help because his wife left him? Yes. But did Simin leave because her husband failed to respond to her emotional needs? Doubtless. Should Razieh have taken the job, given that she was five months into the pregnancy and that her fundamentalist piety made her leery of cleaning—and therefore seeing nude—an old man who had soiled himself? Probably not, but she desperately needed the money and intended to turn the work over to her husband, Hodjat. It wasn’t her fault that he got arrested for debt before he could replace her. (Nor is the arrest Hodjat’s fault, given the state of the Iranian economy.)

And did that push really cause the miscarriage? Later we learn that a car had hit Razieh the day before the scuffle on the staircase. But why had she run into traffic? Because her elderly charge had wandered out of the apartment and she was retrieving him. But how had she allowed him to wander off in the first place? Because…

And on and on it goes: charge and counter-charge and counter-counter-charge. Yet A Separation is no mere bundle of escalating squabbles. Each turn in the plot, each revelation of some fact suppressed or overlooked, uncovers something poignant or unsettling: an unexpected generosity from the truculent Nader toward the equally truculent Hodjat; the exasperating nosiness that an otherwise admirable tutor displays at a crucial moment; a vein of gentleness in a calloused magistrate when he questions a child. Such scenes touch universal chords, but there are other incidents that convey the specific flavor of Iranian life. Class resentments are inherent in the friction between the blue-collar Hodjat and the middle-class Nader, and the religious pressures that exacerbate such frictions are there, too—as when Hodjat dismisses nonfundamentalist Nader’s ability to take a sacred oath.

And all of the ramifying troubles flow out of a political problem that is bigger than any individual conflict. At the beginning of the movie, when Simin petitions for a divorce, she indicates to the judge that she still loves Nader and wants to part from him only because he refuses to leave Iran with her. And why does she need to leave Iran, the judge asks. Because of the current circumstances in this country, she replies. And what are those circumstances? To this Simin can make no response. Nor can Asghar Farhadi permit his character to make a response. But he’s counting on us to know what the highly educated Simin’s unspoken yearnings are. All through the legal and domestic wrangling, this quiet political chord continues to reverberate.

What is especially striking is the way a certain conventional courtesy never gets quashed by the ongoing acrimony. “Please” and “thank you” are constantly muttered during situations in which Americans would barely grunt or nod. Paradoxically, this admirable concern for gestures of respect can just as often ratchet up anger as mitigate it. Razieh would have left Nader’s apartment quietly and the stairway scuffle would never have taken place if Nader hadn’t flown off the handle and accused her of theft. And Hodjat’s partly paranoid suspicion that Nader is disrespecting him edges him toward violence.

The two children in the film—Nader and Simin’s eleven-year-old daughter and Razieh’s five-year-old girl—are crucial. They are avatars of candor and simple justice while egotism, self-pity, and pragmatism sully the claims of their elders. (Vittorio De Sica once made a film called The Children Are Watching Us, and A Separation might have used that title, too.) But even children can’t avoid lies in a world filled with harsh choices. In the shattering moment when Nader’s daughter perjures herself to protect him, we can sense the gates of Eden snapping shut behind her.

All the actors are wonderful. Leila Hatami never lets us forget Simin’s essential tenderness no matter how angry she gets. This is an actress who can communicate her character’s past without the aid of flashbacks. I kept imagining the Simin of a dozen years ago, eager to set out on life’s adventures before unhappy contingencies leashed her. Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat, a sorehead struggling to retain his dignity, is both pitiable and scary. Another double-sided performance is Sareh Bayat’s Razieh, easily winning both our compassion for her plight and our impatience at her almost masochistic (but culture-enforced) humility. Peyman Moaadi, who plays Nader, is a special case. Unlike his fellow actors, he doesn’t have an especially expressive face, but his gestures, posture, and sudden shifts of tempo in walk and speech are enough to suggest the character’s roiling emotions.

Like the Italian neo-realists of sixty years ago (De Sica, Rossellini, et al.), Iranian directors observe their fictional characters pursuing their destinies among masses of people going about their business, indifferent to the fates of strangers because life is on the boil; money must be made and children fed. (The unremitting noise of Tehran’s traffic provides a sort of aleatory music on the soundtrack.) As with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one sometimes feels that if the camera shifted just a few feet to the left or right of any given shot, we would latch onto stories just as compelling as the one Farhadi has chosen to tell.

But there’s a deeper resemblance between De Sica and Farhadi. Both have a genius for the tiny action or gesture that has no immediate bearing on the story but immensely enriches the film’s texture: Razieh’s little girl pressing her face against a window, turning her nose into a little snout; the same child’s wonderment at the old man’s electric wheelchair and her exhilaration while riding it. Or take the ingratiating moment when Nader, under arrest, raises his right hand to take an oath, thereby forcing the young police officer to whom he’s handcuffed to raise his left hand. “And why are you swearing, too?” asks Nader, and both men break into a smile. It’s a wonderful moment, superfluous but unforgettable. As tightly knit as its storytelling is, A Separation still takes time to relax, to breathe. Its characters may be caught in the law’s machinery but the movie makes gratifying detours into humor, contemplation, and sheer humanity.

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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