In the concluding moments of A Separation, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) and Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the religious lower-class couple that have lost their unborn child as a consequence of a quarrel with the film’s titular characters, are in the midst of a last minute dispute. “I have doubts,” says Razieh in regards to how exactly she lost her child, but this is no time for indecision. Nader and Simin, as well as Hodjat’s creditors, are waiting in the other room, and a check is to be written that would mend all parties’ troubles. When the already-frustrated Hodjat closes the door and speaks to his wife with unwavering vexation, there is no doubt in the audience’s mind that he is about to strike her. Instead, he strikes himself, slapping his own face and head relentlessly with utter despair. It is a human scene, and in essence, what A Separation truly represents is humanity. These aren’t the stereotypical characters we have come to expect from our experiences with cinema; the God-fearing lower-class don’t necessarily abuse their families, and the well-off don’t abandon theirs either.
In stark contrast to Hodjat and Razieh are Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Simin has asked for a divorce because she wants to leave the country, but Nader refuses to leave – he has a father with Alzheimer’s who needs constant care. The couple’s chief dispute, however, concerns Termeh, their 11-year old daughter.
They can either leave the country together or Termeh has to stay with her father as per Iran’s child custody laws.
Nader’s intention to stay is just as vindicated as Simin’s longing to leave; he must take care of his father, and it is just not right to abandon him at such a crucial time. “He has Alzheimer’s! Does your father know you are his son anymore?” she bellows at her husband. “What difference does it make? I still know him as my Father!” Nader retaliates.
In a recent interview, Asghar Farhadi was asked why he hadn’t left Iran when he had an opportunity to do so, and he cautiously replied: “If your child has a very high fever, what would you do? Would you abandon your child, or would you stay there?” Nader’s unnamed father, who is only referred to as “dad” or “granddad” throughout the film, can certainly be an emblem of the director’s home country. He is plagued with an irreversible ailment, forgetfully fluctuating between past and present (“Ali got married,” he says blankly in one scene. “Who’s Ali?” Nader inquires before submissively playing along, “Yes, Ali got married.”). He has forgotten who he is, and it is his son’s obligation to preserve what is left of him. Nader operates similarly in regards to the Persian language, schooling his daughter to use Farsi words as opposed to the Arabic ones she is taught in school. He consistently holds on, determined to retain everything that is receding from him. Some of these events are simply out of his control, while others are a direct result of his inflexible struggle to maintain.
Over the years, countless Iranian films have been submitted to foreign festivals with an aim to “sell” Iran to the outside world. Most of these films tend to dramatize life in Iran in terms of depravity and poignancy (2011’s saccharine Circumstance and 2009’s meandering My Tehran For Sale are prime examples). These films, in essence, are political products. They are not Iranian movies, but movies about Iran, merely aiming to implant sentiments of helplessness and indignation – that although constant in the everyday life of the country, do not truthfully represent what Iran is to Iranians. To us, Iran is simply our home country. We choose to carry on in it, adapting to the rigidity and lingering paranoia in order to subsist. We have no other choice. Politics undeniably underlies even the simplest of lifestyles in Iran, but it does not hinder individuals from actually living. Life goes on even in the direst of conditions.
What Asghar Fahadi has achieved with A Separation is exactly the antithesis of this deeply flawed form of representation. His film does not preach or plead to an audience. Farhadi’s Iran (like our Iran) isn’t overtly political; it is human – seething with assorted “truths” and distinct customs and belief systems. The film guides its audience through this conception with a masterfully crafted narrative where neither character is right or wrong. They are each carrying on in their own ways, and their clash is essentially a consequence of the incompatibility of their values and lifestyles.
Several years ago, I took the chance I was given and left Iran. Not unlike Simin, I too saw no other course of action at the time. I would either stay and develop my country’s ailment, or find a home somewhere else. Not a day passes where I don’t crave a certain piece of my homeland, most especially its people, who tackle each obstruction, and like the characters in A Separation, carry on with their unbroken vigour and soul. After all, it is that same home-grown vigor that gave us A Separation, an absolute gem that ascends socio-political delineation, and instead emphasizes pure, imperfect humanity.