A Separation – New York Film Festival Review

A light yet powerful Islamic family drama that refuses to cave in to stereotypes.

A very surprising film, and a pleasant surprise at that. From the first moments of this movie, when Islamic wife Nader (Peyman Moaadi) argues heatedly with her Islamic husband Simin (Leila Hatami), you are sure she is going to be killed, maimed or humiliated.

We are taught to believe this is what happens to uppity Islamic women. Instead, a most complex and intriguing legal, political, romantic, family drama unfolds that has more twists and turns than any spy thriller released this year.

It goes without saying that emerging director Asghar Farhadi was not about to make an exploitation film about sexism in the Islamic culture. Instead, he produced a well-directed and insightful look into a family coping with a crisis that is all but unknown in the western world.

The quality of the acting and screenplay is high enough for it to win the Golden Bear as well as acting prizes for all four lead performers at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. This is not Farhadi’s first victory in Berlin; he took home the Silver Bear for his “About Elly” in 2009.

The issue at hand is the couple’s lucky break in obtaining coveted visas to leave Iran for the United States. Husband Simin is the driving force in this, hoping to provide a better future for their 11-year-old daughter.

However, once the visas are on the way, Simin confronts the reality of leaving his Alzheimer’s stricken father behind and realizes he cannot do it. Nader wants to stick with the plan and take daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her to the USA, even if Simin stays behind.

Seeing this impending cataclysm, the two decide on a trial separation. Simin moves out and Nader’s world collapses like a house of cards. Now, writer/director Farhadi could have produced a comedy about how the man finally realizes how important his wife is. Alternatively, he could have cranked out a preachy, religious gospel about the wife’s place in the home. Instead, he pulls the rug out from under the audience and hatches a convoluted plot that does not quit until the credits roll.

In fact, at the 2011 New York Film Festival the audience stayed in their seats throughout the credits, thinking there was more to come.

When Nader leaves, she hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a pregnant woman with deep Islamic convictions. She takes the job unbeknownst to her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed laborer with a hair trigger temper and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Caspian Sea. It is a serious sin for Razieh to be alone with a strange man, even if he does not know a woman from a pomegranate.

There are some funny moments in the first thirty minutes of the film. Razieh’s position must be kept secret, but when she miscarries with a 19-week-old fetus and Simin is accused of causing the miscarriage, the resulting charge of murder under Islamic law is no laughing matter.

Now he is not just fighting with his wife to keep their family together and take care of his father, he is fighting to avoid life in prison. As the differing versions of events come pouring out of the closet, Rashomon style, even the most attentive viewer finds it hard to remember the truth. Or, even to sort out what is significant and what is not.

The Berlin Awards for best acting went to the two couples. Indeed, it is hard to decide who of the four is best. They each have riveting depth in their performances, assisted greatly by Farhadi’s intelligent and challenging script.

Nonetheless, in the end, the entire story shifts to daughter Termeh who becomes not only the oracle but also the power center for the convulsing foursome. The scene shifts back and forth from a story of male-female dominance to one of the power of the young versus the power of the old.

A completely successful and unique look at modern family life in Iran. A great supporting performance for courtroom magistrate Babak Karimi whose no-nonsense chop-off-his-hand attitude gradually gives way to the Islamic episode of Judge Judy unfolding before him, and a yeoman like Alzheimer’s by Ali-Asghar Shahbazi.

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Directed and Written by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami and Sareh Bayat 
Release Date: NYFF—No Planned Release
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Country: Iran
Language: Persia
Color: Color