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3 July 2011

Separation Anxiety

The eponymous separation in A Separation might only take up about 15 minutes of the movie's two-hour screen time but it acts as the catalyst for all of the subsequent events in the film. As the film opens, we see Nader and Simin, a middle-class Iranian couple, trying to obtain a divorce. Simin has obtained a visa that would allow the couple and their ten-year-old daughter, Termeh, to leave the country but Nader wants to remain in Iran to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's. Nader doesn't want Termeh to leave and she isn't keen to leave either but as her mother puts it, Termeh is too young to realise the loss of opportunities staying in Iran will entail.

Thwarted in her efforts to get the divorce, Simin moves out of the family home and moves in with her parents. This means that Nader must find someone to come into the flat to care for his father while Nader is at work. An acquaintance of Simin's recommends her sister-in-law, Razieh, a working-class 30-something, whom Nader interviews for the position. Razieh seems reluctant--she would have to leave her home at 5 am and take several buses to get to Nader's house and she doesn't think the pay is sufficient, but eventually, she says she'll take the job. The trouble starts when Nader's father's illness suddenly worsens, he stops talking and starts soiling himself. The presents a problem for Razieh, who is very devout and thinks it is a sin for her to wash and change Nader's father. The situation is complicated by the fact that Razieh's unemployed, depressed husband doesn't know she has taken the job and so she tries to get him to do it instead. This doesn't work out, however, and Razieh keeps on turning up each day.

But one day, Nader and Termeh arrive home earlier than usual to find their flat locked and no one answering the door. When they eventually get in, they find Nader's father unconscious on the floor, tied by his arm to the bed, and Razieh nowhere to be seen. While the two of them try to wake Nader's father and check whether he is OK, Razieh and her young daughter return. Inevitably, a fight develops--not only did Razieh leave Nader's father alone in the flat, tied to his bed, but she may also have stolen some money. Furious, Nader throws her out, metaphorically, but she comes back a) because she doesn't want him to think she's a thief and b) to get her pay for the day. This time, Nader throws her out literally. She slips on the wet staircase and falls.

The following day, a seething Simin comes to tell Nader that Razieh is in hospital having had a miscarriage and that it's all his fault. The remaining hour or so of the film is occupied with the ensuing courtroom drama. Razieh and her husband are accusing Nader of the murder of their unborn son; Nader responds by filing a complaint against Razieh for leaving his helpless father alone when she'd been employed to take care of him. There is a lot of anger on both sides. I found my sympathies lying unexpectedly with Nader, who I felt had every right to be angry after what happened to his father, even if he wasn't right to physically push Razieh out of his flat. As well as trying to stay out of jail, he has to try to persuade his estranged wife to return home and try not to lose the respect of his daughter, especially when it transpires that the latter only chose to stay with him to try to prevent her parents' separation becoming permanent.

Eventually, various revelations clear up the legal--if not the moral--issues between the two families, which brings the drama back to Nader and Simin's separation. At the end of the film, they decide to go ahead with the divorce, which just leaves Termeh to decide with whom she wants to live. She has made up her mind and asks her parents to wait outside while she tells the judge her decision and as the credits start to roll, we see Nader waiting in anticipation. My guess is that she chooses to live with her mother, despite the fact that she stood by her father throughout the film and even lied to protect him. She still loves him but I do think she loses some respect for him over the course of the film.

The acting was great--very low key and restrained--and the issues were dealt with sensitively and intelligently.  I got the impression that the director didn't want to take sides, in either of the legal cases; instead, each character makes both good and bad decisions and has a varying moral compass. Is it right to leave a man with Alzheimer's by himself for a few hours even if you have a very good reason for going? Is it right to seek to accuse someone of a crime when you have a reasonable degree of doubt that they might not really be responsible? Is it right to say in court that you didn't know something when you really did it know it but didn't recall it in the heat of the moment? Is it right to lie to protect someone, to stop them being punished for an act for which you don't believe they are responsible? The characters in A Separation dance a fine ethical dance, and it's also a very compelling, interesting dance.

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