I was intrigued by this new release of Iranian cinema early this year, and after its Oscar win for Best Foreign Film, it couldn’t be long before I viewed A Separation (2011).
The film kicks off with you in the judge’s seat
This fascinating film sweeps the floor with every single one of the Hollywood films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (let’s just say it restores my faith in cinema, which was shaken by visually appealing but narratively atrocious films like Midnight in Paris).
From the beginning, A Separation puts you in the judge’s seat, literally. The film opens with a couple disputing a claim for divorce. An assertive Simin (Leila Hatami) tries to convince a judge why she should be allowed to divorce her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi). She claims to want to go abroad and provide a better life for her daughter Termeh, and accuses her husband of standing in her way. He claims he cannot leave his rapidly deteriorating father (suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and in need of constant care), though if it were up to him, he wouldn’t stop her from leaving. From the beginning, this film does not let you off the hook: no one is fully right or wrong, but everyone’s claim to the nuanced truth is tarnished by their clumsy attempts to present said truths as unequivocally black and white.
What was refreshing to me is that the repressive, sexist laws and Orwellian abuses of power in the Iranian “mullahcracy” were, for once, not in the foreground of this engaging drama. Remove the hijab and the Koran, and you have a universal representation of people doing their best to quietly get by and setting up terrible domino chains of consequences in their haste. Be it through the eyes of a court judge or those of a wide-eyed daughter, the audience is constantly invited to evaluate the actions of these people and simultaneously condemned to not be able to fully acquit or condemn anyone.
How can a couple separate and not destroy the life of a daughter? How can a woman abide by strict subservient religious tenets and yet care for an absolute invalid and her own children, all to aid her increasingly dysfunctional, violent husband? What comes first, family, God, or the absolute truth?
Watch this film and find out.