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Moral dilemmas are ubiquitous the world over. Matters of nationality, sexuality, religious doctrine, class consciousness, and other divisions may color moral decisions, but the personal choices human beings make on a daily basis often share more commonalities than differences. Individual decision-making can be tough when there’s not a single right answer, and when more than one party is affected by the decision, the divisions can become even more pronounced. Between a husband and wife, and between an employer and employee, the moral guidelines are not always clear-cut, and attempts to reach moral accord may only lead to deeper separations.
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation opens as Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), an Iranian husband and wife, face directly ahead while outlining their arguments to an offscreen judge. They have differing views regarding what’s best for the future of their family, and the composition of the shot clearly puts the audience in the judge’s seat. (The film’s closing shot does something similar.) Simin wants to bring up their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) away from these current “circumstances” in Iran and has acquired the necessary visas for them to depart the country. Nader doesn’t wholly disagree, but he refuses to emigrate because that would require him to leave behind his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who lives with them and is afflicted by Alzheimer’s. Their visas will expire in a few weeks and Simin wants the judge to grant them a divorce so she can be free to leave. He does not, so she moves out of their apartment and in with her parents, while their daughter remains with her father and grandfather.
That’s just the beginning. The effects of the decisions made by this couple trickle down into the lives of many others. A caretaker is now required to take care of Nader’s senile father. A comfortable member of Iran’s middle class, he is able to afford housekeeper Razieh, a devout Muslim from a lower class. But when Nader returns one day to find his father’s wrists and ankles tied to the bed and Razieh absent, he goes into a rage and fires her upon her return. Demanding her unpaid wages, Razieh forces her way back into the apartment and a scuffle ensues. Later, it becomes known that Razieh was pregnant and claims to have miscarried while being shoved out of the apartment. Her hot-headed husband brings the issue to court, and Nader now faces a murder charge. The story winds its way over the material, forcing the characters and the viewers to constantly reassess everything they have seen and heard.
The story is specifically Iranian, and it’s fascinating for the glimpse it provides into the lives of the country’s middle class, which we see so rarely in the West. Patriarchal thinking and class distinctions still dominate life’s contours, and we also begin to see that this family’s predicament is not all that unusual in the international scheme of things. Farhadi captures it all with a restive handheld camera that emphasizes the claustrophobia and confinement experienced by his characters. His film, which is nominated this year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and appears to have unusual freedom of expression for an Iranian film (this is, after all, a country that jails many of its best-known filmmakers), is smart, provocative, and brimming with ungovernable human emotions.