When Nader (Payman Moadi) refuses to leave the country as wife Simin (Leila Hatami) desires - "so we can give our daughter a better future", the latter packs her bags and files for a divorce. Nader has a more pressing, albeit personal reason: he couldn't leave behind his father afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease and degenerating fast. On the day of Simin's departure, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) a carer who would look after his father: "Make sure he gets fed or doesn't wander outside." But complications arise when Razieh learns that she had to change the 70 year old senile gentleman's pants too. The act poses a moral as well as ethical dilemma for Razieh who turns out to be pregnant. Moreover, she had to leave her house at 5 AM just to get to Nader's place at 8 AM. She balks and tells Nader she couldn't do the job. But she recommends her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) who's eternally unemployed.
A few days later, Razieh returns and once again assumes the domestic employ. Hodjat is being held by creditors, thus couldn't make it. Later that day, Nader comes home to an almost deserted house. Razieh and her little daughter is nowhere in sight. What's worse, Nader finds his father lying stiff on the floor, barely breathing, hands tied down the bed. Is he alive? Upon Razieh's return, all hell breaks lose, compounding to an ever escalating dilemma that involves Razieh losing her child; Hodjat suing Nader who himself sues Razieh for abandoning his father as well as "stealing" lost money at the cupboard. Where does this commotion take our protagonists? Is Nader aware of Razieh's condition? Better yet, did he really cause Razieh harm by pushing her out of his home and down the stairs? Would Nader be willing to pay the "blood money" to avoid jail time?
Like most Iranian films, director Asghar Farhadi tells his story straight without the expedient machinations familiar in American or Asian Cinema: fancy lighting, music, flashbacks, special effects to help move their narrative. In fact, "A Separation" essentially subscribes to the precepts of "Dogma 95" - the avant-garde cinematic movement that was started in 1995 by Scandinavian directors Lar von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. If there was music, it only appeared when the credits rolled.
The strength of such film making lies in the strong structure of the narrative itself. It has to be compelling enough for its audience to sit and listen without having to resort to the aforementioned gimmicks.
True enough, in the heart of Nader's quandary are several ethical issues and the distinct cultural mores that Iranians conform: a wife has to have her husband's permission if she pursues employment; she can't work with a single man; one can't lie and swear on the Koran; one cannot hurt a pregnant woman (which is, obviously, universal). These, we mention, to underline the coterie of predicament tackled in "Nader and Simin: A Separation", the film's original and more complete title.
The performances are nothing to scoff at. Peyman Moadi's Nader is particularly watchable and natural. Sareh Bayat, who played Razieh, exhibits the uneasy vulnerability of her character; her motivations distinct and her emotions palpable. The cast, in fact, won Berlin's Silver Bear Award while Sareh Bayat won a well deserved Best Supporting Actress from the London Critics Circle. Shahab Hosseini is likewise menacing. He depicts a scorned husband's wrath with fierceness, but somehow you suspect that he has motives far removed from that of a caring husband. Meanwhile, if Sarina Farhadi (playing 11 year old Termeh) enjoys easy banter with Moadi, it's because she is the director's daughter. Affinity somehow breeds agreeability.
I am a creature of very specific taste. I love Iranian Cinema because they entertain without dumbing down their audience. I am tentative to the brave demeanor of Iran's brash filmmakers - most of whom gets punished for their art. They aren't afraid to mirror the complex issues that litter their soceity. Director Farhadi once said: "I feel it's important to talk about the complex issues affecting us. I think it's insulting to an audience to make them sit and watch a film and then give them a message in one sentence." His statements are aplenty.