(2011)4Mark DemingAmong the seven deadly sins, pride doesn't rank very high as the basis for great films; lust, greed, and wrath have certainly earned the most screen time over the years, and even envy and gluttony have been at the root of a number of popular movies, but sloth and pride are tied for last. Yet Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has created one of the definitive portraits of the destructive nature of pride in his masterful fifth feature, A Separation. Nearly all of the characters in A Separation are motivated by a profoundly arrogant need to deny their failings, and their passionate refusals to compromise threaten to ruin the lives of those around them. While faith, social class, and gender all play a role in the dysfunctional interactions of Farhadi's characters, it's pride that festers inside them and makes them hurt strangers and the people they profess to love the most.
A Separation opens as Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are arguing the basis of their divorce before a judge in an Iranian house of justice. Simin, an educator, wants to leave Iran for an environment that will provide greater opportunities for their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), a bright sixth-grader. However, Nader, a bank employee, refuses to consider the notion and cites his need to look after his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is struggling with Alzheimer's. Nader and Simin can't balance their individual needs against what's best for the family, and Termeh is holding her parents to a stalemate, correctly assuming that as long as she chooses to live with her father, Simin will not leave the country. Meanwhile, Simin has moved out of the house and is living with her mother, forcing Nader to hire a housekeeper to look after his dad.
Razieh (Sareh Bayat) takes the job as his housekeeper, as her family has fallen deeply in debt since her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) lost his job making and repairing shoes. But Razieh is five months pregnant and deeply religious, and the physical demands of the job and her fears that cleaning up after the incontinent old man may violate her religious strictures force her to resign. Nader persuades her to stay on until he can find a replacement, a decision he regrets when he comes home to discover Razieh is gone and his father has been tied to his bedpost -- in addition, the old man has fallen off the bed, knocking off his oxygen mask and leaving him near death. Razieh returns and gets into an argument with Nader, and he pushes her as he insists she leave the apartment. A few days later, Nader is charged with murder by Hodjat after Razieh suffers a miscarriage; wracked with rage and grief, Hodjat insists Nader's actions led to the death of his unborn child, while Nader is just as adamant that he never touched her and that her treatment of his father is the greater injustice. Before long, Hodjat is stalking Nader, Simin's relationship with Nader grows even more contentious as she's certain her husband is lying, and Termeh, caught in the middle, begins to buckle under the strain.
A Separation's narrative is significantly more complex than this description suggests, but while the many conflicts between the characters go through plenty of detours as they play themselves out, writer/director Asghar Farhadi never allows the action to feel forced or unrealistic. At times, A Separation suggests an Iranian variant on Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage in its vividly naturalistic depiction of human relationships and its emotionally broad but unfailingly believable performances. Peyman Moaadi as Nader and Leila Hatami as Simin seem all too honest as a couple who have lost their ability to compromise in an emotional debate in which both sides are right and wrong at the same time. (Farhadi allows Nader and Simin to have equally valid reasons for their feelings while also making clear they're making a bad situation more unpleasant.) Sareh Bayat's Razieh and Shahab Hosseini's Hodjat are harder to relate to, yet that also seems to be the point -- her crippling faith and guilt and his rage and growing panic are also manifestations of pride, but they've been shaped into forms unrecognizable to the other couple, making their inability to comprehend one another all the more poisonous.
With the help of cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, Farhadi has given this material a look that suggests it was caught on the fly, but a closer glance reveals intelligent framings that often use obscured images to reveal more about the characters and the action, which is effective without robbing the film of its realism. And for a movie that's as emotionally draining as A Separation, Farhadi doesn't stoop to manipulating the audience. Instead, he lets his story follow its own path, and he gradually reveals the tragic flaws of his characters without any appeals to cheap sentiment. A Separation isn't splashy or showy; instead, it's absorbing and ultimately devastating as it demonstrates the power of a story told honestly and well. It's a superb study of where pride can take people who should know better, as well as a moral tale of our times that's universal despite its focus on the specifics of Iranian culture and society.
An Iranian couple plans to flee the country with their young daughter, but finds their marriage suffering after their plans fall through due to an unforeseen complication. Simin; her husband, Nader; and their daughter, Termeh, are all set to leave Iran when Nader impulsively cancels the plans to care for his ailing father. Incensed, Simin attempts to sue for divorce, but finds herself forced to move back in with her parents when the family court rejects her request. In a naïve attempt to reunite her fractured family, Termeh subsequently moves back in with her father as her grandfather slips deeper into the throes of Alzheimer's disease. However, when the demands of caring for his father become too great a burden for one man to carry, Nader hires Razieh as a nurse. At first Razieh seems like the answer to all of Nader's prayers; little does he realize she is carrying a child, and that she's been keeping her career a secret from her husband. Then, one day, Nader returns home to find his father bound to a table and Razieh nowhere in sight. In the explosive confrontation that follows, Termeh sees a side of her father she never knew existed, and Nader's rage threatens tragic consequences for all involved.