A Separation shows how modern Iran appears outwardly liberalised but, underneath the chic apartments and nice cars, the same old religious and gender squabbles threaten to explode at any moment. The film centres around a single, pivotal moment in the middle of the film that brings the prejudices of everyone involved to the fore in life-changing ways.
The film is masterfully directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose understated and ultra-realist style is all the more effective in the times of religious turmoil we live in. The film explores themes and conflicts that exist between religion, class, and gender as it exists in modern Tehran. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle class couple who have been married for fourteen years, have decided to divorce. Simin wants to move abroad, to find more opportunities for herself and their daughter Termeh, but Nader doesn’t want to move. His father has Alzheimers disease and the couple can’t afford to pay a full-time carer. Putting her emigration ambitions on hold for the moment, Simin agrees to stay in the country but insists on living apart from Nader, and so moves in with her mother. Termeh lives with her father and helps to care for her grandfather but, with school and studying taking up most of her time, Nader decides that they need a helper. Simin arranges for a friend’s sister in law – a deeply religious lower class woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) – to care for her father in law.
A Separation has a simple storyline but it comes together in a completely devastating way. An example of the sort of question the film asks, with regards to the role of religion in the modern world, is perfectly demonstrated with a small scene in which Nader’s father soils himself in his bed. Only Razieh and her daughter are there in the apartment, but she feels uncomfortable being alone with him and is not sure if it’s permissible by God. She rings her religious guide and asks if it’s a sin in God’s eyes to bathe an 80 year-old senile man. She is eventually comforted to know that it is not a sin, but her devotion leads to her undoing by the end of the film.
This is not a clear film of right and wrong. Every character is ambiguously moral and immoral in equal measure, but every character’s actions are justifiable in their own small way. It’s terrifying to see just how easily centuries-old tensions can come bubbling to the surface through a series of accidents and unwise actions. It’s a film of tension and subtlety, perfectly played and fully deserving of its critical success.