posted 2012-04-07 16:08:08

Fighting Over What?

 Nobody wins in A Separation

Christian Davies

Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of
In the first scene of Asghar Farhadi’s masterful A Separation, the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, a woman named Simin (Leila Hatami) tries to get a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi). Herein lies a simple conflict that would allow one to believe

it would be the basis for the entire film. While it’s true that A Separation is about a divorce and is set in Iran, Farhadi works to deliver a gripping film that ducks conventions and expectations. Over the course of two hours, genres are mixed, convincing plot twists turn the film on its head, and a well-crafted storyline provides sympathy for all of its central characters.

Immediately adding dimension to the plot, its learned that Simin isn’t requesting a divorce because she no longer loves her husband, but because she wants to take their teenage daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), to an unnamed country so she can have a chance at a better life. Nader, however, refuses to grant the divorce or to leave Iran because he has to take care of his dementia-ridden father.

To portray the tension between Nader and Simin in the opening scene, Farhadi uses a long, continuous shot, letting the camera sit over the judge’s shoulder as the couple struggles emotionally through the law process. By not taking the camera away from the action, Farhadi sets a unique atmosphere of uneasiness among both the characters and the audience members watching them.

What makes the film so effective is the in-depth look at the lives of people that have no easy way out of anything. Nader cannot make his family happy because he has to take care of his father while Simin cannot give her daughter a better life because she can’t get a divorce. Termeh can’t make either of her parents happy and has no choice but to go along with whatever decisions they make.

The film is wrought with enough emotion to border on melodrama, but its anchored by the strength of its actors, who all give nuanced, understated performances that never let us forget how much is at stake for each of them. There is never a set of dead eyes in this film. Sarina Farhadi’s Termeh steals the show with a quietly observational role that suggests her character may be more equipped than anyone else in her family to make such important decisions.

A masterful exercise in screenwriting, A Separation morphs from a domestic drama into a thriller after about a third of the films passes. With Simin moving back in with her parents and Nader needing a caretaker to look after his father in the afternoons so he can go to work, a legal layer is pressed into the plot, blending a familial struggle with a courtroom argument. By knocking the movie off its tracks and adding in a second storyline, Nader’s struggle with two separate crises turns unbearably engrossing. This is a film capable of inducing winces and head- turns without a single shot of gratuitous violence.

This element of suspense is the keystone of all good thrillers and dramas. Farhadi puts his characters under an extreme amount of pressure as they try to work out a solution. As Nader’s life barrels into an absolute nightmare he doesn’t know how to stop, the film grapples with personal, complicated issues like how far one would go to protect his family, and how can one regain stability in life with an entire legacy at stake.

At the end of A Separation, Termeh stands alone in front of a judge, trying to decide which of her parents she wants to go and live with. Nader and Simin, who have left the fate of their family in the hands of their child, wait helplessly outside the courtroom. Farhadi’s weighty drama ultimately pegs the question: when you have to break one person’s heart in order to make another happy, who is the winner in the end?