Not just because it’s subtitled, though that’s handicap enough with American audiences. But the cultural context is Iran, which could not be any more foreign to North Americans. And yet, the people on the screen just spring to life in a way that wraps up the adventurous viewer willing to take a shot at something really different.
Tired of the old Hollywood formulas? “A Separation” blows away any categorization. It feels like the documentary of a harsh, incisive, gut-wrenching family drama, so powerful is its storytelling and its dramatic tensions.
We open with a poignant scene where the camera takes the point of view of a “judge,” who seems to be more like a court-appointed mediator. The husband and the wife are sitting across his desk, presenting their (very differing) points of view, and there are no other lawyers, advocates or even clerks present. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) is the husband who doesn’t want to emigrate with his wife, Simin, because he feels he needs to stay at home to take care of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s. Nor does he want to grant her a divorce, for fear she will take their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Apparently current Persian law is similar to North American divorce law until the 1950s, where one party had to “sue” the other for divorce, and if the other wouldn’t grant it, then certain criteria (such as adultery) had to be proven.
Simin (Leila Hatami), for her part, wants a better life for her daughter Termeh, and thinks that will not happen in their current household situation. She feels for Nader, but she’s going to classes, and (maybe temporarily, maybe not) staying at her parents’ house, and she’s encouraging Termeh to come with her. Termeh, for her part, understands that if she goes with her mother, her father will never come with them, and her family will be forever divided, but if she stays with her father, her mother might be desperate enough to return. So she constantly begs her father to plead with her mother, which he’s too proud to do.
Meanwhile, because his wife is no longer in the house while he’s working, he has to hire a sitter, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who has a husband Hodjat, looking for work and a daughter she has to bring with her. She is shocked by needing to care for the personal needs of the old man, but she has little choice. She’s pregnant, and she’s desperately trying to keep her own family together. The fact that Hodjat is an angry hothead doesn’t help when Razieh and Nader have a dispute that itself spills over into family court, with accusations flying every which way. We recognize them as people still trying to find their center of personal integrity within this chaotic adversarial context.
If you get drawn into this movie as I did, you’ll forget about the subtitles, you won’t notice the unusual names, and you won’t even stumble over the cultural idiosyncrasies (like the women wearing the chador, particularly in public). You’ll just sit there and empathize with everyone at once, and wish fervently for some Solomon-like solution for them all.
This isn’t a popcorn movie. It won’t play well if you try to watch it while doing the wash, texting or chatting. Its viewing deserves your full attention. If you’re brave enough to try it, you will be moved, despite yourself.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.