March Web Campaign
Our ongoing work on the web and in First Things magazine assures that your religious ideals and convictions have a voice in the public square. To do that well we need your support. Please click and donate.
R. R. Reno, Editor
An older man I know once remarked that in his experience, there wasn’t much point in arguing that divorce was wrong. What he’d come to believe was that—especially when the couple had children—divorce was simply impossible. These two people would continue to remain yoked to one another’s lives, their memories, griefs, resentments as intertwined as their laddering DNA.
A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning, naturalistic look at an Iranian couple clinging to their irreconcilable differences, depicts the characters’ inability to untangle themselves from all of their clutching obligations, not solely the marital ones. The characters are often framed by windows, door jambs, or staircases, all the furniture of the social world. They’re fenced in, crowded, and monitored. There are many striking shots in which characters are framed by the bodies of their relatives: as when Simin (Leila Hatami), the wife, is seen through the crook of her father-in-law’s elbow. Other people’s lives and bodies form the boundaries of their world.
The movie at first seems like it will be Simin’s story. After all, she’s the one who sets the plot in motion by insisting that the family move out of Iran so that Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), the couple’s daughter, can have a better life. Nader (Peyman Moadi), her husband, refuses to move; in desperation she says she’ll divorce him if he doesn’t. Mulish and self-defeating, he doesn’t fight for her—a rejection which causes her to break down in tears even as she proceeds with the divorce. She moves out and goes to stay with her parents.
At this point the movie becomes the story of the fractured household she left behind. However proud and stubborn Nader is in fulfilling his obligations to his wife and child, he’s tender and diligent in caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. But he has to work, and with Simin gone, he has to hire a woman to come in and nurse the ailing man. When the father sees this stranger bending over him, anxiously trying to get him to change his soiled clothes, he asks, heartbreakingly, “Simin? ...Simin?” This woman, Razieh, is a devout Muslim who is keeping her employment secret from her hotheaded husband. Her entrance into the household starts a chain of events which ends in tragedy, reinforcing the sense that adult life can be as helpless as childhood.
The adults, both men and women, try to make choices and assert themselves; these choices are always understandable but they consistently misfire. Even when Nader tries to face up to wrongdoing on his part and make amends for harm he has caused Razieh and her family, it ends with a fight in which her husband angrily asks him, “Why the hell did you come here?” To do the right thing, obviously! But even trying to do the right thing—let alone the other things, which these characters choose more often—only leaves everyone even more powerless and humiliated than they were before. Simin runs over and separates the fighting men; she’s still, inextricably, her husband’s wife.
A Separation is a deeply empathetic movie. It feels for all of its characters even as they act in self-serving or self-deceiving ways. The adults ask far too much of Termeh. (An early scene in which her father gets her to negotiate with a gas-station owner over the bill—putting her in the middle of two adults—is pretty clear foreshadowing.) They ask too much of one another. And it seems like God asks too much of them, while they ask God for the wrong things—the devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat) practices an anxious faith concerned mainly with avoiding wrongdoing, while the other characters attempt to lawyer up by getting God on their side.
The film critic Victor Morton noted that an alternate title for this movie could have been, “The Law Is a Ass.” The divorce proceedings force the couple to try to explain the most private and inexplicable, inexpressible truths of family life in terms which can be understood by strangers. Obviously, they fail: The first line of the movie is the dry verdict of a divorce bureaucrat who tells Simin and Nader, “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.”
As their troubles escalate, the law gets more and more entangled in their lives. The law needs yes/no answers (“Did you know this at the time?” “Do you admit your guilt?”) which force the characters to choose between self-protective lies or self-lacerating ones. The adults try to salvage their own seemingly hopeless situations by bringing in the law, but they find that they can’t control the legal outcome. Their attempts to use the police create a welter of competing lawsuits which leave all of them more damaged and defensive than before. The authorities respond by thwarting them, threatening them, and then, as they beg for mercy, telling them to calm down.
But it isn’t only strangers who will find it impossible to render final judgment on these two colliding families. Nader and (more subtly) Simin try to cajole Termeh into giving her own verdict on their moral character and the decisions they’ve made. This, the classic role reversal of the divorcing parent, is a demand Termeh simply can’t meet. There’s a terrific, painful moment in which she watches her mother packing to leave. Her parents have said that her mother will just be gone for two weeks, but Termeh clearly doesn’t buy it. Her mother looks at her sadly as the daughter closes her eyes in anguish and then slowly opens them, determined and judgmental. (The two child actors inhabit their characters perfectly. Bayat captures Termeh’s sullen adolescent grace; Kimia Hosseini as the housekeeper’s little daughter is watchful and willful, wreaking herself on a world she can’t yet understand.) Termeh is torn between attempting to trust the parents she loves, and attempting to figure them out; she can’t do both.
Your heart aches for all of these people no matter how frustrating and hurtful their actions. By the end of the movie it’s obvious that they have become locked together for life. The movie’s final question should never have been asked, and there can be no true answer; the “separation” of the title is the one thing these characters can’t possibly accomplish.
Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.
David Schaengold, The Moral Realism of Ashgar Farhadi’s “A Separation”
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.