Two adults wage marital war and it is the lives of other people that get caught in the crossfire. Such is the premise of this Asghar Farhadi film, titled A Separation, which is perhaps this extraordinary director’s crowning achievement in a career filled with cinematic gems. Once again Farhadi proves that he’s a master of handling tense arguments, verbal combats and the many inexplicable (yet realistic) complexities that creep into his characters’ daily lives. In this story of a dissolving relationship set against the harsh realities faced by the middle-class, Farhadi’s artistic vision shines through as he continually tips the scales of morality and then effortlessly balances them by burrowing deep into his characters’ psychologies.
With A Separation, the director weaves together a nuanced and emotionally compelling snapshot of modern-day Iran and the ills faced by the citizens of a country caught in transition ― from an age of religious inflexibility and male dominance to one of rational thinking and fragmented families.
Nader (Peymaan Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married couple, live in Iran with their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to move out of the country, but Nader is reluctant to do so as he wants to take care of his ailing father. This results in the couple living separately and the rest of the film depicts Nader’s continued efforts to take care of his daughter and senile father by himself, even in the face of exponentially compounding problems that life throws at them.
In one masterstroke of a film, Farhadi explores the multitude of problems faced by the average middle-class families in modern urban societies. Just like in life, there are no clear winners or losers in his movies. No one’s completely guilty yet very few are completely innocent in A Separation. And once we begin to look deeper into the causes that motivate the characters to act the way they do, we realize how little choice humans have in actually controlling their fates.
As the film shifts in tone and the resultant tension from the moral ambiguity of powerplay rises, you feel it probably can’t get any tenser but right then Farhadi dials it up two notches, grabbing you in a tight chokehold of emotion and empathy. The narrative continually forces you to reassess your understanding of the characters and their moralities as newer information comes into light. Shahab Hosseini is one mighty fine talent and his naturalness and range in front of the camera, even in About Elly (2008) and The Salesman (2016), kept reminding me of Toshiro Mifune, one of the most versatile actors in the history of cinema.
Farhadi shows excellent insight into Iranian society, culture, and religious values through the film; with one woman’s unshakeable devotion to the Quran becoming the basis for a major plot point. A Separation doesn’t go directly opposing Islam but gently shows how the inflexibility of its laws can result in problems being compounded instead of being solved. However, it’s not just about Islamic laws either. Farhadi also exposes the inefficacy of the very system of law and order, as Nader carefully explains to his daughter why even a truthful confession in court won’t make much of a difference in their verdict, due to the strictly binary nature of the system itself which fails to take natural human error into account.
Mahmoud Kalari’s cinematography, which is intimate without being intrusive, makes the narrative strangely involving as it conveys more through still close-ups of faces than mere dialogue can accomplish. Hayedeh Safiyari’s editing is spectacular and keeps the viewers on their toes, injecting a feeling of uneasiness at every turn while achieving almost classic Hitchcockian pace ― quick without being disrespectful to the script, allowing the characters to breathe and the acting performances to shine through. The writing itself might seem simple at the outset but is actually rather complex without being complicated, rich in details regarding the world these characters inhabit and their behavioural nuances.
Godard once said “Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” If the revered French director was at all accurate in his assessment of the medium, then a particular scene from A Separation, where the camera lingers over the two little girls from the opposing families, exchanging meaningful glances, would fill entire encyclopedias about truths regarding the human condition. It is one of the many devastating shots in the film that unapologetically brings forth the hypocrisy of the situation ― two innocent souls caught between the endless battle of lies and egos of their parents, who understand each other far better than these adults ever would.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.