Friday, April 20, 2012

Notes on A Separation

The Iranian film A Separation was one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the past year, but I went into it knowing very little other than that it was about a married couple on the verge of divorce because the wife wants a better life (outside Iran) for their young daughter while the husband needs to look after his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Based on this synopsis, I expected to see a nuanced story about people trying to balance their responsibilities, feelings and circumstances. And indeed, Asghar Farhadi’s film is all of this.

But it is also (and this I wasn’t expecting) something very much like a thriller, complete with tale-altering twists; a psychological detective story where revelations aren’t just frisson-generators but flow all too naturally from the characters’ personalities and situations. Emerging from the screening at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, I found myself in a variant of the discussions one has after watching a film from the mystery genre, such as Kahaani or The Usual Suspects. ”Remember that line where she says...?” “What did that glance really mean?” “That exchange was so unobtrusive, one barely registered it at the time.” “I need to see THAT scene again.”

Two levels of suspense – inseparable from each other – exist in A Separation, and they both circle around the film’s central incident: a brief scuffle between the husband, Nader, and the lower-class woman, Razieh, whom he has employed to look after his father while he is away at work. There is, first, the mode of the conventional “whodunit” (or “what happened”) and though it feels glib to discuss a slice-of-life drama in such terms, the film itself makes nods to such suspense – as in a scene where Nader retraces the incident (which has got him into legal trouble) for the police.

But the other form of suspense – one that persists through the film – is at the level of character, where the concealment of seemingly minor information gives us a different perspective on a person's behaviour. Layers are gradually peeled away and we see the full potential (for goodness, anger, deception, understanding) of all the protagonists: Nader and (to a lesser extent) his wife Simin; their intelligent daughter Termeh; Razieh and her hot-headed husband Houjat.

Here's just one example of this understated suspense and the emotional complexity in this film’s best scenes. (Minor spoiler alert) Razieh has accused Nader of causing her miscarriage, which is a very serious matter because the foetus was over four months old and therefore technically a human being as per the local law. Much hinges on whether he knew she was pregnant when he gave her a slight push to get her out of his house.

At one point Nader confesses to his daughter that he had known Razieh was pregnant, but it had slipped his mind at that specific moment. (“But you know how the law is – they expect everything to be in black or white. According to them, either I knew or I didn’t know.”) This is borne out cinematically: the early scene where Nader (and by extension the viewer) overhears a conversation mentioning the pregnancy is shot in such a way that the information is presented almost subliminally, with other things simultaneously occupying his (and our) attention – it isn’t stressed at all. At the time of the altercation, therefore, the viewer is in the same position as Nader: so focused on the high emotion of the moment (he has just discovered that Razieh left his father alone at home, almost causing his death) that he isn’t thinking about Razieh’s condition. In other words, he knew and he didn’t know; it’s a difficult idea to express in a film, but this one manages it.


After watching A Separation I read two or three reviews by Western critics, and thought it interesting that they discussed it mainly in terms of the broad cultural differences between Iran and the West (therefore clubbing all the characters in this film together) while glossing over
the schism between the two sets of lifestyles depicted within the story: the relatively well-off, cosmopolitan life of Nader’s family as opposed to the penury of Razieh and Houjat. But this is another important kind of separation, one that is based on privilege and education – it’s a separation between those who can (just about) afford to employ domestic staff and those who are forced to take up such positions to make ends meet (even if it means that a woman from a tradition-bound family must hide the fact that she is working). It’s a separation between people who are still rigidly devout (to the extent of staking their souls on the Holy Book) and those who have moved away from (or adopted a more relaxed attitude to) religion. And this separation has a distinct bearing on the plot arc, the actions of these people and their attitudes to one another.

The tension of the class divide is manifest in offhand little exchanges. “You think all we do is beat our wives all day” Houjat shouts at Nader in the judge’s chambers; in another context, he exclaims “These people don’t even believe in God”, to which Nader retorts sarcastically, “Yes, God is only for you people.” At one point the conservative Razieh has to take religious advice about whether she is allowed to change the old man’s trousers when he has soiled himself. And Nader tells the judge that he couldn’t make out Razieh was pregnant because “she is wearing a chador all the time”. Over the course of the story, these separations become so overwhelming that the characters can barely see or hear each other; cultural differences, secrets and misunderstandings accumulate to create a snowball effect; much is revealed about individual character and, by extension, about the workings of a society.

I thought the growing complexity of the film’s structure (wherein we come to empathise with different people in turn) was reflected in the difference between its opening and closing shots, both of which are lengthy takes. The opening shot is relatively straightforward, with the camera adopting the perspective of the judge who listens to Nader and Simin make their case for a divorce. As viewers we are put in his position, asked to listen to these two people (whom we barely know at this stage) and form opinions about them. But in the long closing shot, which takes place as the end-credits roll and Nader and Simin wait outside the judge’s room (with other people, all of whom no doubt have their own dramatic stories, moving about in the corridor near them), the camera’s eye has become “objective”. We are no longer expected to judge (and by this point, the immense difficulty of forming judgements has been made obvious). We simply watch and wait for further developments.


  1. Such a brilliant review, and what a surprise of a movie it was too. I told someone that watching this movie, at different points, one is privy to the all-good, the all-bad and the vast grey in the personalities of all characters. I found the end a little disappointing, but overall, I loved it.

  2. Thanks a lot for this excellent review. This is the kind of movie I love to watch, and I look forward to watching it soon. I don't really read the spoiler parts, but couldn't help it with your review, because it is so well written.

  3. Wonderful review, best one I've seen, and I appreciate your observation about the perspective of some Western reviewers, which I'd also noticed but could never articulate so well. -- Virginia Kelley

  4. Jai, this is one of the best pieces anyone has written on this film! Bordwell did write about the thriller aspects - he made a convincing case that most Iranian exports are veiled "thrillers", where the withholding and gradual unfolding of crucial information decides the character arcs* - but you expanded on them greatly.

    *Offhand I can think of several Kiarostami, Panahi, Makhmalbaf and Majidi films which are structured like thrillers.

  5. Brilliant review of a masterpiece. To me this is one of the best movies ever.This deserves a book written on it, and it will tell you a lot about yourself if you care to ponder.In my experience, I found it interesting that the people who did not like this movie, found it hard to accept alternative interpretations of the movie. They either thought that Razieh was cunning, or Nader was rigid or Simin was selfish etc.

  6. Thanks for the appreciation, everyone - pleasant surprise since I hadn't really intended to write about this film; did it mainly because I needed to fill a column space.

    Sudipto: is the Bordwell piece online?

    Jose: I felt a bit funny even putting in a spoiler alert for a film like this, but I do think much of its impact depends on the way in which things slowly come together as in a jigsaw. Though the revelations are made in an understated way, they are also significant.

  7. I found it interesting that the people who did not like this movie, found it hard to accept alternative interpretations of the movie. They either thought that Razieh was cunning, or Nader was rigid or Simin was selfish etc.

    Rahul: interesting point. I've only discussed the film with the two people I saw it with (both of whom liked it), but I imagine that it can seem a run-of-the-mill film if you form rigid opinions about the characters.

  8. Another brilliant piece J . So pleasantly surprised you wrote about it because I hadn't really thought you would .

    And loved the way you mentioned the opening and closing shots , though I'd really like to know if anyone (much like me) spent quite some time thinking on which parent the daughter must have eventually picked. I still can't be sure who she picked though and that's what I finally thought of the whole movie too. It was difficult to try and "relate" to any of the characters as in one ends up doing in such psychologically motivated movies. Their actions and emotions and everything else seemed too personal to them by the time the movie ended . You just wanted to be a spectator to this story , thinking it was something that had happened to someone else .

    And on a different note, I too think this movie would provide a great subject for a book .

    BTW , anyone interested should check out another film from the same director . Its called "About Elly" and is very similar in execution and plot unravelling as this particular movie . My fascination for Iranian cinema continues to grow with every passing year . Hope to have some more posts from you on them.

  9. Jai: Here it is!

    And yes, more Iranian cinema posts please. My favourite country in terms of cinema.

  10. Great movie. Easily my favorite movie of last year. Plugging my "review" here..

    Actually less a review, more just a gushing recommendation for friends etc.

  11. You are reading a bit too much into various meanings of 'separation' in the title. 'Jodaiye' of the Farsi title means just that and nothing else.

  12. True masterpiece. This film is thought provoking .. so richly details the complex emotional and class conflicts between the characters. One of the best in last 10 years.

  13. Separation is very good, but it is still cinema.

    Bullhead - goes beyond ceases to be cinema at some point.

    Now wonder Separation won the Oscar.

  14. court without lawyers
    this is the garden of eden
    Iran rocks

  15. I have seen this great film once but with full attention to the details. I cannot recall Razieh ever accusing Nader to have caused her miscarriage. This is done by her husband. She only insists that she was wrongly accused of stealing money, and of being pushed by Nader out of the door and onto the flight of stairs.
    Indeed she was withholding some information relevant to the case, but she was not actually lying.

  16. Whenever I read a film or book review by you, I know I'm reading a well-thought out, well-rounded critique, and that's truly saying a lot given the general quality of reviews nowadays. Anupama Chopra is the only other critic I feel compelled to read.
    Will look out for "A Separation."

  17. I read the first paragraph of your review and decided to read the rest later after I had watched the movie. I read the complete review now and I realized I had missed some subtle points in this movie.

    What I loved about this movie is how the director introduces seeds of suspicion in the viewer's mind. I was surprised to see the teacher lie to Houjjat about not questioning his kid after the court scene. For someone whose conscience is so strong that she goes and revokes her statement, I wonder how she could lie to him. When she swears on the Koran, she conveniently leaves this part out.

    I found Simin's character a bit unbelievable. I was never sure what her intention was. Does she want to leave Iran or just separate from her husband or wants to exert her importance in the house?

  18. I also loved how the film begins with the couple wanting a divorce and the film ending with the couple waiting for their daughter to choose from either of them to stay with. Thus the answer to the film's initial issue of divorce had been resolved in the end by granting divorce, but this is so beautifully camouflaged by ending the film with the lurking question that whom the daughter would choose to stay with?.. the mother or the father, as if it mattered.