This terrific film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2012.
It comes from the director of About Elly, Asghar Farhadi, and explores similar themes, but is much more developed and complete. In About Elly, three liberal, middle class Iranian couples and two singles go on holiday by the Caspian Sea. When one of the singles, Elly, disappears, it prompts the fall of a complex tower of lies upon lies, all set against the restrictive backdrop of Iranian social norms.
A Separation has a similar structure; a germ of a crisis becomes huge problem, not just because of the lies people tell, but because of the pressures that people are under, which makes their behaviours and subsequent lies almost inevitable.
Simin and Nader are on the verge of separation. Simin wants to leave Iran, for a better life for the family, and especially for their daughter Termeh (the script says 11 year old, but the character is written more as if 13/14). Nader cannot leave Iran because he has to care for his father, who has Alzheimers. So Simin leaves Nader and goes back to her family home, while Termeh stays with Nader.
Nader has to leave the house to go to work, therefore he must employ a carer to look after his father during the day. This beginning is a bit slow, as we see the stress that Nader is under, looking after his father as soon as he comes home from work, but also the stress that Razieh, the carer, is under, forced by poverty to commute long distances for little pay, and unable to tell her husband what the nature of her work is, due to her religious and cultural misgivings about how proper it is for her to be caring for a single man, even an elderly and incapable one.
The plotting is astonishingly intricate, which belies the fact that the action takes place on only a few stages; the family apartment block; Simin’s family home; and a crowded, jostling courthouse, for the courthouse is where they all end up when the families end up in conflict and one family claims against the other, only to be faced with a counterclaim.
The acting is very good, very naturalistic. Our sympathies swing from one character to another, and all of them end up compromised, but the rigid legal system means that for all concerned, the stakes are high, and only and all or nothing outcome is likely; there are no such things as mitigating circumstances, which might lead all to a sympathetic outcome.
I’d been expecting from the title rather a narrow film. concerned with the personal dynamics of a break up, but nothing could have been further from the reality. As well as the legal system, the religious and class systems also play their parts in the unfolding drama, and this felt as complete a portrait of a modern society that it’s possible to put across in two hours.