Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movie Review: A Separation

Peyman Moaadi (as Nader) and Sareh Bayat (as Razieh)
A Separation (2011)
Written & Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini and Sarina Farhadi

At first glance, A Separation appears to be an intimate glimpse at the steady decline of a 14-year marriage between a 30-something couple with a young daughter. The opening scene, where they each face the camera to plead their case -- she wants a divorce, he does not -- doesn't even begin hint at the domestic turmoil that is to come in this slow-burning narrative. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat domestic drama brimming with carefully guarded secrets and devastating misunderstandings.

Simin (Leila Hatami) boldly requests a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi). She wants to take their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) out of Iran so that she can experience a world outside the strict confines of her homeland. Nader refuses to leave -- not so much out of a sense of patriotism but simply so he can take proper care of his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Simin's urgency is understandable -- she has an exit visa that expires in 40 days. However, when her request for divorce is turned down by a judge she leaves her daughter in the care of Nader and goes to live with her mother for the time being. Nader, struggling to make ends meet, hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a female caretaker, to come and care for his father while he is away at work. A devout Muslim who brings her little daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), along with her to work, Razieh struggles with conflicting emotions over whether or not her religion would allow for her to care for an elderly gentleman alone without the permission of her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). That the plot later involves a shocking murder charge and feuding families is a testament to how Farhadi expertly weaves his intricate plot together -- everything that unfolds feels like a natural culmination of preceding events.

A Separation is a beautifully structured character study that uses its slow reveals and plot twists as a means to create mounting tension. It's easy to assume that the title refers simply to the separation between Simin and Nader. However, the film chronicles a variety of "separations" from ideological differences to religion and class division. All four of the adult lead are, at their very core, genuinely good people. It's a tragic and emotionally resonant example of how seemingly honourable decisions can result in a bitter domestic conflict that has the (often irreversible) ability to ruin lives and taint reputations. Farhadi's script ties together multiple narratives and character viewpoints -- yet he avoids painting any of his characters as villains. They each make very human mistakes.

Leila Hatami as Simin
The film may be set in Tehran, but the themes and issues at the heart of the plot are universal. It's partially about preservation -- protecting one's self and family from the attacks and slanders of others. It leaves the viewer questioning whether or not they would have done differently if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Where A Separation succeeds in its brilliant and beautiful storytelling, it also boasts a wonderful ensemble cast -- arguably the best of 2011. As a young couple on the verge of divorce, Hatami and Moaadi give genuinely powerful performances as Simin and Nader. Whether their scenes are shared or separate, their portrayal of a couple in turmoil feels so authentic you may catch yourself feeling as though you were watching a documentary on a real marriage. The supporting cast, led by a towering performance from Bayat as the quietly commanding caretaker Razieh, each create fully realized people who find themselves in a tough situation.

When we catch ourselves in a downward spiral -- when life suddenly gets too messy and complicated -- it's how we react to the situation that says a lot about our character. A Separation isn't only about the things that divide us, it's also about how we choose to handle the problem -- and how it can potentially unite us in the end.