'A Separation:' Reversing Trends of Iranian Moral Fables
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation (2011) is an Iranian drama following two families of different social classes and a civil dispute that threatens to put one of the protagonists in prison. Dissimilar to past Iranian films, A Separation opposes the status quo of the national cinema by leaving the correct moral stance up to audience interpretation rather than providing an obvious ethical takeaway.
In her essay “Cinematic Governmentality: Cinema and Education in Modern Iran, 1900s-1930s,” Golbarg Rekabtalaei debunks the misconception that the origins of Iranian cinema are rooted purely in entertainment. Rekabtalaei states that scholars wrongfully consider early Iranian film spectatorship a leisure practice for the elite and wealthy. In practice as early as 1909, film screenings were advertised as “moral films” for the general public to watch and learn a code of ethics from. Foreign films were scrutinized and few received screening permits from the government if loose morals were on display (Rekabtalaei, 2018).
Unlike early Iranian films, A Separation does not teach or instruct the audience how to behave or how to follow a single moral code. Its handheld look accurately reflects how the film is an observation of the events unfolding. In July 2011’s Sight & Sound, Philip Kemp describes the cinematography as free-roaming, “framing and reframing tight groupings of people in confined spaces, shifting perspectives just as the balance of arguments shift between them. No one viewpoint is privileged,” (Kemp, 2011, p. 77). The filmmakers present to the viewer dilemmas, asking virtuous questions instead of giving concrete answers.
The first question that A Separation asks the audience to consider appears in the very first scene. The protagonists, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married, middle-class couple, sit before a judge, fighting over their divorce. Whereas western divorce proceedings typically concern the splitting of property or custody of a child, the couple fights over whether to divorce at all. With expiring visas that were gruelingly sought by Simin, she wants to move to a different country where their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) will have more educational opportunities. However, Nader wishes to stay in the country to care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who has Alzheimer’s disease. Simin seeks a divorce so that her daughter may leave the country with her without Nader’s approval. But for a divorce to be granted, both parties must consent.
The filmmakers made the strategic choice to place the camera where the judge would be sitting. Nader and Simin sit symmetrically before the judge with equal frame weight, fully facing the camera when not bickering with the other. Traditionally, filmmakers will use visual language to hint to the audience who the protagonist is and in turn who to align themselves with more. But this scene does the opposite. With no visual cues and equally compelling arguments from both sides, it is hard to determine who is “right.”
In the final moments of the film, we return to a similar room. However, instead of Nader and Simin sitting in front of the judge, it is the daughter. With the divorce granted by the government, it is up to Termeh to decide who she wishes to live with. Although there is more dynamic coverage of her parents who are in the same room, she has almost identical coverage to her parents in the opening scene, sitting in the middle of the frame. However, her coverage is slightly off-center, possibly to reflect the fact that she has already made her decision – a representation of her favoring one parent over the other (who stand on separate sides of her) or, rather, a representation of hiding her answer.
After the judge requests that the parents leave, Nader and Simin wait on opposite sides of the waiting room hallway, with a windowed partition separating the pair. It is a nearly full-body shot of the two of them, with other people in the background, also waiting. The divorced couple is powerless and small, anticipating Termeh’s decision. The decision is not revealed to the audience, enforcing the film’s unsettled quandary.
Although the decision on whether or not to separate the family is the thread throughout the film, most of the conflict stems from the main family employing the mother from a lower-income family. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) takes the job as the caregiver to Nader’s ailing father. She is a devout Muslim who wears a chador and has the number of an imam on her person in case she is unsure if she is correctly following her faith. Razieh is a direct foil to Simin, who is a more secular and modern woman. Simin wears the less modest hijab, works as a teacher, and is privileged enough to afford a car and drive herself places when Razieh must take the bus. Although there are stark differences between these women and it would be easy to condemn one while uplifting the other, the filmmakers do not show a bias toward Simin or Razieh and display their flaws equally.
As previously elaborated, Simin would willingly leave behind Nader’s father in order to give Termeh more opportunities. To support her choice, she tells Nader that due to his Alzheimer’s “he doesn’t even know you’re his son.” It was a cruel thing to say, but she prioritizes her logic over the grandfather. Razieh, likewise, prioritizes something over the well-being of the grandfather– her faith. Early in the film, the grandfather wets the bed under her care. Before changing him, she calls Simin, asking if she can leave work to change him. When Simin says that she can’t, Razieh puts fresh clothing in the bathroom, asking the grandfather if he can wash and change himself. When he can’t, she calls the imam for religious guidance. Once she’s told it that would not be a sin to see him naked, she finally assists the grandfather who clearly needed her help from the start of the ordeal.
Another situation that parallels the characters’ flaws is when Nader and Razieh use deception in order to save their own skins. In court, Nader lies to the judge, claiming that he did not know Razieh was pregnant before pushing her out of his front door when she refused to leave without pay (which Nader withheld when she left his father alone during the day). Because he is accused of causing her miscarriage and therefore murder, it is less likely he will be charged if he can prove he did not know of the pregnancy. He can’t risk prison because he knows that no one will look after his father in his absence.
In Razieh’s case, she doesn’t explicitly lie to the judge, but she withholds the crucial information that she was struck by a car the day before being pushed which might have been the cause of her miscarriage instead. She keeps this to herself until the end of the movie because she fears that her aggressive husband will blame her for the miscarriage. Although there are moral codes that the filmmakers convey as negative (lying and putting oneself before the elderly and vulnerable), such stories are not framed as parables. No character is condemned for their actions or given valid reasons for committing less than savory acts – even in the case of Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), Razieh’s volatile husband.
Hot-headed, unemployed, and in debt, Hodjat is the least sympathetic in A Separation’s ensemble. He escalates arguments with physical violence and yelling, but he is still given reasoning (but not excuses) for his poor behavior. Throughout the film, he expresses his bitterness toward Nader and the social class that he represents. In court, Hodjat can feel that Nader is winning over the judge with his ability to articulate his defense in a way that both Nader and the judge understand. In anger, he yells, “I can’t talk like this guy!” Later, when Simin visits his home, attempting to offer his family money in exchange for him dropping the murder charge, he refuses. His relatives are appalled. They give him good reasons to take the money: the dispute will finally be resolved, and the money will be put to good use. But Hodjat is prideful, refusing the money and proving to the couple that he cannot be bought. It was his pride that motivated him to accuse Nader of murder in the first place, believing that a wealthier man should not get away with his crime.
Although the filmmakers previously decline to take any sides, two shots at the end of the film appear to condemn one group of people: the adults. All characters meet for the final time (even Termeh and Razieh’s young daughter, Somayeh [Kimiya Hosseini]) when Hodjat agrees to take the money, ending the civil dispute. What is supposed to be an end to the animosity results in an even larger rift. Nader pressures Razieh to swear on the Quran that his pushing her caused her miscarriage which she cannot. Hodjat is distressed by this information and hits both Razieh and himself before fleeing the house. The characters are left stunned in silence, save for Razieh’s sobs.
At first, Termeh and Somayeh share a knowing look. They have been friends since Simin asked Razieh to bring her daughter to work so that Termeh could have some company. Unfortunately, this relationship ends when Somayeh’s stare turns sharp and resentful with her chin pointed down, hinting that the cycle of anger that Hodjat experiences toward the wealthy may continue with Somayeh. Her stern look visually drives the family out of her home when the edit pinches time and the next shot is of the family walking to their car to leave. As they drive away, the camera stays on Termeh for a long take, giving the character time to contemplate her experience and the friend she has just lost. This sequence leads into the aforementioned scene when Termeh decides with which parent she would like to stay.
The majority of scenes leading up to this point exclusively feature the adults, and if Termeh or Someyah are in a scene, it is with one of their parents. This flip in protagonist emphasis signifies that the previous events heavily impacted the adults, but the stress of the aftermath falls on the children’s shoulders and will affect them most even after the credits roll.
Counteracting the notion that Iranian cinema must teach a moral lesson, A Separation provides the audience with various polarizing choices and concepts throughout the film. Whether the protagonists should divorce, the secular woman versus the devout woman, and whether or not lying can be good. The film even explores how anger and aggression can be rooted in financial misfortune while still not being excusable behavior. The audience is responsible for applying and developing their own system of morals. The one hint of a lesson is generational: children are likely the most impacted by and vulnerable to adult disputes.
Farhadi, A. (Director). (2011). A Separation [Film]. Filmiran.
Kemp, P. (2011, July). A Separation. Sight & Sound, 77.
Rekabtalaei, G. (2018). Cinematic governmentality: Cinema and education in modern Iran, 1900s–1930s. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 50(2), 247–269. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0020743818000053