Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation opens by throwing the audience into the deep end of matrimonial strife as Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) justify their reasons for separating before an unseen Iranian government official.
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation opens by throwing the audience into the deep end of matrimonial strife as Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) justify their reasons for separating before an unseen Iranian government official. Shot from the point of view of their interlocutor, it has a stylised and faintly Kafka-esque feel to it, as minor squabbles and fundamental grievances unravel in front of the anonymous and calmly sinister bureaucrat. It’s a striking opener, with the film seeming to set out its stall as a personal tale of family breakdown set against the background of the wider socio-political situation in Iran and forged in the tradition of the dystopian, nightmarish works of Beckett, Orwell and Pinter.
What actually transpires is a watchable, but still slightly disappointing work of social realism; the moral nuances and ambiguities of a bourgeois family struggling to cope with the strains of a broken relationship and the burden of caring for daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and dealing with the symptoms of Nader’s live-in father’s (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) Alzheimer’s.
Without his wife Simin to care for his family, Nader hires a young woman, Razieh (played by Sareh Bayet), to help him cope but things quickly turn sour when he discovers she’s tied up his father – apparently to make her job of caring for him easier – and Nader forcibly ejects her from the house. The plot hinges on this one incident – and the truth and lies of what actually happened – as the characters get drawn into what on the surface would seem a melodramatic whirlwind of legal, financial and emotional consequences. The problem is that writer-director Asghar Farhadi tells the story with such clinical detachment that it all seems like a bit of a storm in a teacup and despite some strong performances you never quite care enough for his characters as the plot demands.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Farhadi says he seeks “to avoid embarrassing actors with general considerations on the film”; that the “actor doesn’t need the global meaning of the film” and that the audience don’t need to know his intention. Simplistic messages are one thing, but despite winning the Golden Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival (and two Silver Bears for Best Actor and Best Actress to boot), you can’t help thinking that Farhadi’s obfuscation hides the fact he didn’t really have a clear idea of what the film he wanted to make actually was. A well-acted, nuanced yet simple story, but as far as the hype goes, in this case the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes.