“He’s a good and decent person,” Simin (Leila Hatami) tells an Iranian judge about her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), from whom she is seeking a divorce. The unseen judge, baffled, asks Simin why she would want to divorce a good man. She explains that she, Nader, and their young daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), have been offered visas to America, and she believes that their standard of living will improve if they go. Nader, however, is ambivalent about leaving Iran because their relocation will leave his Alzheimer’s afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) all alone. The judge rules that he can’t grant a divorce under the described circumstances and wishes the married couple a good day. When they arrive home, an upset Simin packs her bags and moves to her mother’s. Termeh stays with her father.
The opening scenes of Asghar Farhadi’s superb A Separation (2011) set a chain of causal events in motion that force us to remember and re-think the film, even as we watch it. With Simin gone, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to clean the house and care for his father. The first few days go relatively smoothly. But one day, Nader and Termeh return to the house and find Nader’s unconscious father tied to a water heater. When Razieh returns home, the obviously upset Nader chastises and pushes her out of the apartment. Later, he receives a phone call from Simin informing him that Razieh was pregnant. She fell down the stairs when Nader shoved her and miscarried. Now, Nader is charged with murder.
The film continuously encourages viewers to revisit these scenes as the complaints and defensive statements solidify. Nader claims he never knew Razieh was pregnant and would not have hired her if he had known. He remembers conversations, however, which touched upon Razieh’s pregnancy. Was he in the room for the entire conversation about her pregnancy? Or was he only in the room for a part of it? What about the fact that Nader’s shove, which we only see from one angle, doesn’t seem to jive with Razieh’s unseen fall? Farhadi’s staging and tightly constructed screenplay come off like a cross between a Hitchcock film and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). We slowly realize our memories may not be as faulty as those of Farhadi’s characters, who suffer additional stress from the anger and frustration that builds beyond the small slice of life at the trial’s forefront.
Nearly every aspect of A Separation has a concise form and a precise function. The acting is superb, and I can’t wait to watch the film a second time so that I can pay more attention to Hatami, Maadi, and Bayat and less attention to the subtitles. The red herrings around the crime are – thankfully – few. My only criticism of the film involves a subplot with a doctor whose presence at a certain time would alleviate any doubt about the case. The doctor never appears, nor is he or she summoned by the court (does the Iranian legal system even have doctor-patient confidentiality clauses? Even if it does, can’t it bend it in the case of a murder trial?). In any case, while critics may have overestimated the greatness of A Separation, the film is a finely crafted piece of cinema.