Faith & Film: A Separation

“A Separation” just won the Oscar for best foreign language film. It is the first Iranian film to be so honored. This domestic drama has received widespread critical acclaim for its unique glimpse at family life in Iran. In some ways, the tensions that exist could exist anywhere. In other ways, the story is unique to its home country.

When we first meet the husband and wife Nader and Simin, she is requesting a divorce so that she may leave the country with her 11-year-old daughter Termeh. Simin believes that better opportunities await Termeh in Western countries. Nader opposes both the divorce and the move. He must stay in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer’s.

Simin moves out, and Termeh remains in an apartment with her father and grandfather. Nader hires a young woman, Hodjat, to care for his father during the day while he is at work and Termeh is at school. A few days later, Nader and Termeh return home to find his father alone, tied to the bed. When Hodjat returns, he fires her. Hodjat cries and wants to stay. Trying to control his anger, Nader pushes Hodjat out the door. She falls on the staircase.

A few days later, Simin receives a phone call from Hodjat’s sister-in-law telling her what has happened. She also claimed that Hodjat was pregnant, and, as a result of Nader’s push, she miscarried and lost the child. Nader must go to court, and is charged with the murder of Hodjat’s unborn child.

Much of the film deals with the trial and investigation of the incident. As in a Hitchcock movie, lives of ordinary people are turned upside down over a brief, unexpected incident. Like an eyewitness, I wanted to remember the incident exactly as it happened. Was Nader guilty of murder? Did he know that Hodjat was pregnant? What role does Hodjat’s quick-tempered husband play in this incident? Could he have anything to do with the miscarriage? Termeh is caught in the fray when she is asked for her testimony. Her father tells her that he needs her to support his testimony. She is caught between her own version and protecting her father.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi does a good job with the interweaving of the family drama and the courtroom drama. The intricate plot demands attention; I was totally absorbed. Even with the courtroom suspense, “A Separation” is at its heart a family drama. In the final scene, Termeh must tell a judge whether she wishes to live with her father or her mother. Both parents sit in a corridor, across from each other with a doorway between them, as they await Termeh’s decision. Despite all that happens, Nader and Simin end the film as separated from each other as they were at the beginning.

Farhadi does a good job of showing a middle-class Iranian life. His characters are neither extremists nor terrorists, just men and women caught up in the complexities of daily life: working at their jobs, caring for an elderly father and raising a young daughter. Nader and Simin are educated people, who live in a small, but reasonably comfortable apartment. I assume they are people of faith, even though they are not shown in prayer or any religious observance. So there is much in the lives of these people which would resonate with our own. There are cultural differences, particularly in gender roles. Would a woman dare contradict a man in court? There is even a hint of class difference in the courtroom. Is there a difference in the way justice is served in the case of the middle class, male Nader, and the lower class, female Hodjat?

I liked “A Separation.” This intricate glimpse of an Iranian family is specific enough to draw me into Iranian culture. Yet universal concerns, including caring for the elderly and wanting the best opportunities for the young, have universal appeal. The widespread critical acclaim of the film is evidence that the lives of Nader, Simin, and Termeh can touch audiences everywhere.

Tom Condon, OP