The credits float over the image of cylinders of light moving across flattened government-issued documents. The first scene proper unfolds over a single static shot taken in a small judicial chamber, where we learn of a petition for divorce between Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi). Simin has been granted official permission to move abroad and is anxious to take advantage of it. Nader has decided against joining her, his stated reason being that he refuses to abandon his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives with the couple, though we gather there may be other, more complicated reasons involving a sense of comfort, of home, an idea of Iran. Simin and Nader also have an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and both parents want custody. Simin and Nader speak directly to the camera when stating their case. Just as the credit sequence is shot from the point of view of a photocopier, this first scene is shot from the point of view of a judge. Which is to say, we’re the machine, we’re the judge, the apparatus. We’re the ostensibly neutral observer. But how neutral can we really be?
Writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s fifth feature, which was the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear at Berlin, as well as the Golden Globe and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, does indeed feel like a landmark, encompassing many of the hallmarks of the great Iranian films of the last 20 years—viewers familiar with the work of Abbas Kiarostami or Moshen Makhmalbaf will recognize that particular way in which discussions develop over extended scenes through a busy mixture of legal, religious and ethical arguments, as well as the placement of great burdens on children—while possessing a gripping urgency and lack of authorial imposition that counteracts the potential alienation that may otherwise leave certain international audiences cold. A Separation is a film about process, and about how much of it occurs outside the controls of courtrooms. Nader hires a pregnant woman to look after his father—there’s a bizarre (at least to me) scene where the woman calls some sort of religious hotline to ask if it would be a sin to change the father’s soiled pants—but circumstances prompt the woman to do something stupid that endangers Nader’s father, and then Nader does something stupid in return, and that stupid thing causes the woman to lose her unborn child. Or does it? This is a film riddled by facts: the more we learn the more ambiguity festers. The two facts that are never in question are Simin’s determination to leave Iran and Nader’s to stay. Between them stands Termeh, who over the course of the film is forced to make a number of devastatingly difficult decisions. It’s her future more than anyone’s that’s at stake, and for all the diverse forms of support her parents bestow upon her, she’s given no help in choosing what to do.
As A Separation is set to (finally!) open in Edmonton, Farhadi himself has just been quoted as saying that he has no intention to leave Iran, that he loves his country despite its mounting difficulties. But it may not be so easy for him to keep working there. Apparently, following Kiarostami’s example, he’s to shoot his next film in Europe.