Before we get done with 2021, I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 2011
Riveting and complex, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation has much bigger ideas than just being a relationship drama. Featuring an ensemble of great performances, the film is a benchmark for foreign-language dramas breaking into the American mainstream.
Peyman Moaadi stars as Nader, one-half of the eponymous separated couple. His wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country and bring their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) with her. Nader wants to stay in Iran and care for his Alzheimer’s-ridden father. After filing for divorce, the court rejects Simin’s application due to insufficient reasoning. The pair separate and Termeh stays with her father and grandfather.
Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father while he is at work. Razieh is a deeply religious woman who is four months pregnant, drags around her sweetheart daughter, Somayeh, to work to fend off the creditors of her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). When a confrontation between Nader and Razieh puts both families in jeopardy, everyone has to present their version of the truth in order to get what they want.
Each conflict is presented as a battle to be won. There is no discussion of what is right or wrong, but what the consequences of losing or winning would be. When Nader runs into any potential legal trouble, he is in a constant struggle with Simin over who is truly to blame for their situation. It’s never a question of guilt or innocence in the actual situation, but whose action caused this path towards this chain of events.
Termeh is used as a potent weapon in this battle between Nader and Simin. While both sides swear their actions are for the benefit of their daughter, there is no possible way their actions are of any benefit. Additionally, Razieh and Hodjat’s daughter is the only true innocent in the film. She is dragged from one location to the other and left alone for long periods of time without consideration.
Despite being together, Razieh and Hodjat are equally selfish with their desires. Hodjat has to deal with his creditors and utilizes the drama to get what he wants. Razieh justifies her religion to do or not do things at will. She conceals her job from her husband but refuses to lie in order to get what she needs for her family’s survival.
What is true and what characters deem to be true are different. With Nader especially, are the actual details important, or is what can be proven the more important thing? Each character keeps making increasingly irrational decisions, but things begin to work out for the better when they decide to be honest. The film plays out like a parable, except there are absolutely no winners.
Moaadi steers the majority of the narrative. He never stops moving. He is constantly in motion, even when carrying on a conversation. His solution to any conflict is to move forward. Moaadi keeps this resolve of righteousness, no matter if his actions warrant it or not. A masterful performance. Hatami is the other side of that coin. While she is not directly involved in the central conflict, she wields information like a weapon. She utilizes any facts to cut at Nader but never comes across as fully manipulative.
Bayat is masterful as the most conflicted of the central characters. While her deeply held religion does nothing to settle her mind or fix her family, she is tormented at the potential consequences. She values her pride above all else. Hosseini has the most vibrant role as a troubled man whose troubles are only compounding. He transcends potential cliche and instead elicits a surprising amount of sympathy.
The entire ensemble moves and reacts to each other in a profound way. Each interaction is tempered by who is in the room and characters act differently based on who is in their general proximity. Farhadi’s biggest strength is allowing the chaos of a scene to unfold in a narratively meaningful way.
Farhadi’s script navigates relationships and points of view with a complete understanding of what it all means, even if the audience doesn’t. Each yelling match and each pointed interaction will come back later to be used as a piece of evidence. Nothing is wasted and the result is an emotionally draining, but ultimately incredibly memorable experience.
A Separation is devastatingly effective. Between the deft ensemble and the deep emotional issues it unfurls (and shields), the film is much more than just the surface-level destruction of a marriage. One of the best films of 2011.
Next week: A pair of Best Actress nominees in their little-seen films with The Iron Lady and Albert Nobbs