Balanced between a simple observation of daily life and a compelling narrative story, A Separation is a magnificent piece of natural and elegant storytelling. Not every moment contributes to developing the narrative, but every moment in writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s magnificent screenplay is essential to understanding who these characters are and why they behave the way they do.
The result is a story in which there’s no clear character who is in the right, every character is compromised on some level, stuck in some deceit, deception or vice that problematizes their claim that they’re the party which has been wrong. It’s a cycle that begins in the opening sequence of the film where Simin (Leila Hatami) insists for a divorce because her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) won’t leave the country with her. While the situation sounds straightforward enough, complications quickly become apparent.
As this story progresses to account for lives beyond this couple, the brilliance of the storytelling emerges. The tiniest moments, scenes that simply feel like a brief interlude, foremost establish the characters, but often come back to inform the specific details that make up the incidents which the film attempts to unravel.
But Farhadi does not simply sprinkle these tiny, natural moments as key pieces in a puzzle of truth to be solved. Certain incidents simply exist to shed moments on these characters’ life. When Nader tells his daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to go back and request the change for a man who’s tried to swindle her at the gas pump, it’s not an important clue, but simply a moment for father to imbued his daughter with a simple life lesson about how the world works.
This allows the characters of the film to become more than just figures playing out roles in the menagerie of the quest for truth and reconciliation, they become complicated characters, layered in the way they approach life and defying expectations. Nader initially seems distant and stern, but small moments with his daughter Termeh show there’s a gracious and playful side to him. It’s also a side late he uses to twist his daughter to his own ends.
It’s also fascinating to see how both Nader and Simin project onto each other certain stereotypes and roles that they defy. Nader sees Simin as cowardly, running away from the situation, and yet she becomes the main conduit towards changing the situation in the later portions of the film. Likewise, Simin sees Nader as prideful, unwilling to back down from a fight, and yet Nader occasionally disengages where it would be best for him to be aggressive.
All these relationships brew in this conflicted space where everyone feels the other has wronged them and that someone else needs to be the ones to set things right, to bring reconciliation. It’s a film that slams into of the inherent limitations of justice, the problem that everyone has been wronged on some level and that the justice everyone demands of those around them is the very justice they are so desperately trying to escape.
A surface level reading of the title, A Separation, is a reference to the opening divorce that starts the film. However, the real separation is in the dissonance between people’s desire for others to be judge by a standard they hope to avoid. A Separation understands the slippery slope of the double standard of justice, something people are eager to give, but will do almost anything to not receive.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing