DIRECTED BY ASGHAR FARHADI
STARRING: PEYMAN MOAADI, LEILA HATAMI, SHAHAB HOSSEINI, SAREH BAYAT, SARINA FARHADI, ALI-ASGHAR SHAHBAZI, SHAHIN YAZDANBAKSH, KIMIA HOSSEINI and MERILA ZAREI
Derek Cianfrance, who made the chilling ‘Blue Valentine’ last year, once said in an interview that his worst fear as a child was the thought of his parents separating. Isn’t that universal? Death is a finality that can force acceptance. Divorce is beyond that. One moment you see them getting along. Another, you see them wanting not to. You don’t know what happened in between. The worst feeling in a human being, let alone a child, is that of having not contributed, be it for better or for worse. It’s like being most affected in a Civil war that you didn’t have anything to do with.
The ballad that it was, ‘Blue Valentine’ never really brought it down to the child’s perspective. It couldn’t have, it never tried to. It had a baby girl who was frightened by sight and by sound but didn’t know why it rained. Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, in that aspect, works a little stronger. By that I mean it’s more devastating. It burdens its child with knowledge, destroys her further with the strain of understanding. But she doesn’t break. She does something worse. She accepts her fate. I thought of prostitution. I thought of slavery. What she goes through is just as bad.
‘A Separation’ is titled ‘the Separation of Nader from Simin’ in Persian. Which means there is no deuce. I know I didn’t watch a film about a divorce that could also have implied the separation of Mother from Child or of Father from Child. The film does not suggest it. In fact, it resists that notion. The child does not lose just one parent to the separation, she loses both. She knows that. And, not to mention, the watertight security that comes with a family that’s inseparable and as thick as thieves.
I remembered Miles Raymond in Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways’ where he throws a passing remark on Marriage and Divorce. “Last year, it was all divorces”, he says. “This year it’s Weddings. It’s cyclical, I guess.” We’re witnessing a society that hasn’t gotten to that point yet. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) might take matters to court, the godless people they are. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) would consider it a sin to conspire against her husband Houjat (Shahab Hosseini) like that. She wouldn’t fake-swear on the Quran to get some money they desperately need. Nader, on his part, would do it just so he doesn’t lose his little girl Termeh’s (Sarina Farhadi) respect. No doubt they’re both honorable people. But their codes don’t match.
Farhadi discusses his country in this bourgeoisie-versus-the-common battle. The matchup is uneven, just like it always is. The battle takes place on two grounds. Nader chooses his Father, a victim of deep-set Alzheimer’s, over Simin’s adamant stand on leaving the country, with or without him. She accuses him of neglecting his daughter. He blames her for not trusting him with both. Whose side do we take? Nader is plenty devoted to his Father and he loves his daughter to groom. Termeh, on her part, loves him and is happy to help. She is eleven years of age and is at that point where we know she needs her Mother, or she would real soon. But she cannot side with the aggressor for simple fear of capsizing what might otherwise just about make it to shore.
One of them needs to give up. It’s that kind of issue where neither is prepared to cope with the other’s solution. Simin picks emigration for her daughter’s sake. She’s red-haired under the shawl and we see a fleeting image of her smoking on the verandah. We place her almost immediately. She’s like Marjane Satrapi’s liberal girl-friends in ‘Persepolis’ where, as the confused post-adolescent learns, abandoning ship is a survival skill. She’s practical, yes. She eyes the future with Nader caught in the past as it appears, but for what good is this seamlessness? Nader isn’t the pinnacle of subtlety either. He shoves Razieh, his Father’s nurse, out the door, hurting her both physically and sentimentally. Razieh, we know since before, is pregnant. She’s taken to hospital the same night, where she has a miscarriage. At fifth month, the law says, abortion is manslaughter. That’s the second battle.
The accusations go in a circle with everything coming back to Nader, one way or another. Consequences mount. Settlement might imply resolution, but Nader refuses. He takes the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ stand. His daughter asks him if he really didn’t know the woman was pregnant. He responds saying he didn’t at the moment. He saw a woman who had tied his Father to his bed, locked him inside and gone on a joyride. Man turns monster as emotions blind. Termeh shows just as much hostility to Razieh at that point. In her defence, she stood by her Father. Trust is a strong-room that keeps emotions secure. But she finds hers broken in and unforgivably violated as she uncovers the truth, layer by layer.
The parents show poorly in front of their child in a see-saw routine. Termeh, initially by her Father, rolls out closer to the other pole as she deals with him by herself, eventually ending up, I believe, somewhere right in the middle. She pities her Dad in all his helplessness and hates her Mom for having brought it upon him. Then she finds him to be as inertial and misshapen as her Mother pegs him to be. She lies under oath to stop him from going to jail and fights him for having turned down her Mother’s open-arm invitation to reconcile.
In the end, she’s asked to pick a side. She says she has decided. Her choice is, tactfully and rightly so, never revealed. We know it doesn’t matter. Nader has a momentum shift against him, which Simin had caused in the first place. One is as bad as the other, where the two of them have invented dysfunction in what seemed to work previously. Now they’re just vultures pecking on their daughter who stands beside this corpse called dignity that seems to have died with their relationship.
‘A Separation’ has been universally branded the film of the year. From what I’ve watched of the Oscar haul, I would say it comes close in contest against mine – ‘the Descendants.’ Both films deal with eventuality and the show of man’s ugly side in his efforts to resist it. While ‘the Descendants,’ in this quest, served to romanticize his defeat, glorifying its hero as a man who has come to terms with his demons, ‘A Separation’ shows it unadulterated.
Cinema, as I see it, is a hypnotic medium that, to put it simply, renders us vulnerable and easy to inspire; to influence. Farhadi recognizes that in his cautious stance to not give Termeh’s decision away. The separation, on the other hand, is narrated as it is – Man and Woman with blood on their hands, awaiting verdict to tell victory from defeat. I couldn’t cherish the disappointment I felt, even though I could appreciate it. Robbie Weaver in ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ asks his Father to get his Mom back to inspire his own love-life decisions. I cried the same to Farhadi. Our film experience can be crushing, hostile and almost entirely defeated, but on any day, I’d vouch for hope. ‘Death and the Maiden’ was hope at its forgiving best. ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love’ was hope although it’s best not to compare. ‘Blue Valentine’, like ‘the Descendants’, was a tale of glorious defeat.
Imagine this. Thirty years later, Termeh sits down with her daughter as the film unfolds in a recollection. She tells her everything up until the point where she had to decide. Would her husband have a similar story? I don’t know. The child would have a similar decision, perpetrating the cycle of being narrator and spectator of her own story, from Eleven to Forty. There’s an even younger girl (of Razieh and Houjat) whose story begins much earlier, right from the age of four. She witnesses a miscarriage, countersuits, and is made to believe that her Father killed her unborn Brother.
‘A Separation’ leaves us to a fate as pitiful as that of either of these children, helpless to do anything but ask ‘Why?’ That’s as much as my Eleven-year-old self could do. The twenty-year-old still refuses to show. I don’t think he ever would. For when it comes to such a thing as our parents’ separation, I don’t think any of us would grow up to be anything more than eleven years old.