On first glance referring to the separation between the two leading characters, the title of Asghar Farhadi's fifth film covers much more than that. With subjects ranging from the divide between a secular middle class and an orthodox lower class, to the changing relations between men and women as a result of growing emancipation, and the separation of justice and religion, the film is not afraid to tackle hot-button topics, but it handles them apolitically and with nuance. And it niftily packages this inside view of Iranian society in an apparently simple whodunit with constantly changing perspectives, always one step ahead of the viewer.
Simin and Nader are on the verge of divorce. With the visa to travel abroad about to expire, Simin would like nothing more than to leave the country with her husband and their teenage daughter Termeh, to build a life elsewhere. Nader, however, wants to stay in Tehran to take care of his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. The courts reject Simin's application for divorce, leading her to leave her family and move in with her parents.
Having a full-time job, Nader hires a young woman, Razieh, to take care of his father. The deeply religious Razieh has taken the job for financial reasons, but has failed to consult her husband Hodjat. This leaves her as a married woman working for, in all practicality, a single man. Her second day on the job, something happens between Razieh and the old man that initiates an escalating series of accusations, culminating in Nader and Simin coming face to face with Hodjat and Razieh in court. New facts are revealed as the case moves on, not only between the feuding parties, but also in Simin and Nader's marriage, and slowly but surely the story of what really happened between Razieh and Nader's father unfolds.
At the end, the film returns to the original separation, that of Nader and Simin. Throughout the course of the film, even though they live in separation, when the legal trouble starts Simin stands by her man, even if her chief concern in the matter is probably her daughter. At several points, the chasm between husband and wife is shown in poignant shots in their own apartment. They share the home, but they look at each other through glass windows, symbolic of how they are at once separated yet still bound. The final scene of the film is devastating, as it goes against what we expect to happen.
Part of the film's strength is that Farhadi forces the viewer to take sides, but makes it difficult to do so because of the nuanced treatment of his main characters. This constant push for the viewer to judge the characters starts quite literally in the opening scene, when Simin and Nader argue the former's divorce application in front of a judge. Both actors break the fourth wall, putting the viewer in place of the judge. As the story unfolds, and perspectives shift, so does the viewer's position regarding the characters. Since the story follows the template of a whodunit (other reviews have rightfully compared it to Hitchcock), the characters' motives become clear bit by bit, swinging the viewer back and forth between them. Farhadi has woven an intricate web around a tight central story, but it's the effect of life's larger themes (especially Iranian life) on the story which makes the impression here so profound. The arc of the women in particular is devastating.
The divorce application is the catalyst for the story, and the courtroom scene immediately shows one part of the intimate relationships between men and women in Iran, as Simin feistily argues her case. Divorce is on the rise in Iran, and women are becoming more vocal and securing more rights, an aspect of current Iranian society that is underreported. The contrast to this is seen in the marriage of Razieh and Hodjat, which is much less equal, and probably more in line with how people in the West see the position of women in Iran and the Middle East. The differences between Simin and Razieh are shown not only in their actions, but in their dress. Both wear the obligatory headdress, but compared to Razieh's black chador, Simin's colourful and loosely wrapped scarves and modern clothes are almost a sign of defiance. This difference comes from both their position in society, Simin belonging to an upwardly mobile middle-class Tehranian family as opposed to Razieh's working-class suburban origins, and from their adherence to their religion.
Religion in itself is shown to have a large influence in Iranian society (not surprising in a theocracy), and most notably in its relationship to and separation from justice. Iranian law does not follow the rules of sharia, but that does not mean that justice and religion are completely separate, especially not for those who are subject to it. Tellingly, characters seem to have no problem lying before the court, yet are reluctant to swear to their statements upon the Qur'an. After going through the legal system, the conflict is settled by a mullah out of official court (at least, until another twist in the story throws a wrench into that plan).
The acting is stellar across the board. Berlin got it right when they gave their acting awards to the male and female cast of this film. Even when emotions run high from time to time, the acting remains naturalistic, and much is conveyed subtly in a look or in body language. In fact, A Separation probably has better acting during the end credits than a lot of films during their entire running time. The often handheld cinematography complements the naturalistic acting, sometimes giving the film a feel of cinéma vérité. Direction by Farhadi is self-assured, and the editing pitch perfect, creating a pace that makes it feel shorter than its two-plus hour running time. On top of that, the screenplay even allows for a few laugh-out-loud moments in a film that deals with so many serious subjects. Given its win at the Berlinale, and now as Iran's entry in the Foreign Language category for the Academy Awards, one can only hope this film reaches as broad an audience as possible. Even if it's set in a nation that is always viewed with a bit of suspicion (at least in the West), its themes are universal.