“A Separation” explores religion, ethics of family drama

Naia Poyer/The Phoenix

From its very first seconds, “A Separation,” a 2011 Iranian film directed by Asghar Farhadi and winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, confronts its audience with difficult ethical choices. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to capitalize on the visas she worked months to get granted and leave Iran for the sake of her 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Nader (Peyman Moadi), Simin’s husband and Termeh’s father, wants to stay in Iran to care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The film opens in an Iranian divorce court, where Nader is granted legal custody of Termeh, and this marks the beginning of one of the most ethically challenging films of the past decade and perhaps of all time.

After Nader is granted custody by the courts, Simin moves out of their Tehran apartment to live with her mother for a time. Nader, now a single parent, hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the sister of an acquaintance of Simin, to take care of his father while he works during the day. Razieh, a devout Muslim, pregnant and mother of a small girl, finds out too late that the job conflicts with her religious convictions (she must dress and undress a man) and her prenatal care.
“The Separation” won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards.
(Courtesy of stateofmind13.files.wordpress.com)

Furthermore, her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed cobbler who is dangerously in debt, does not approve of her working outside the home. Nader comes home one day to find his father tied to his bed, some money misplaced and Razieh nowhere to be found. She had gone to get a sonogram. When she returns, Nader flies into a rage and fires her. When she tries to plead her innocence, at least with respect to the money, Nader roughly pushes her out of his apartment. Nader soon finds out that Hodjat and Razieh are suing him for the miscarriage of their child. Of course, Simin, Termeh and even Hodjat’s creditors get caught up in the whole affair.

At no point is it clear who exactly is ethically right or who is wrong, nor does the film want that. Every ethical choice in “A Separation” is a complex puzzle of personal morality, law, religion, bureaucracy, and rational and selfish self-interest. How can you choose between your wife and your father? Should Nader have been more sympathetic to Razieh, even after she put his father’s life in immediate danger? Is it fair to ask a child to choose between her mother or her father? The film begins slowly, and at first feels overly deliberate. However, each deliberate move becomes important in weaving an even more ethically ambiguous web, until every solution is unfair from some character’s perspective.

Most of the direct debate plays out in Iran’s Sharia-based court system. Defendant and plaintiff both personally plead their cases in front of a judge and each other without any lawyers or other representatives. The trial becomes a personal argument between the two parties, and all emotions are on the table for everyone to see. This makes the trial even more personal and even harder to disentangle from personal prejudices. Paradoxically, what makes “A Separation” so satisfying as a film is that it refuses to give satisfying answers as an ethical piece. Nothing works out in the end and no one is happy. Things do not even get better in the end. The problems keep getting more and more entangled until all we are left with is an ethical Gordian Knot so large that no moral sword could cut through it. This is why “A Separation” will last as an amazing film: it is a film that finally presents ethical problems that no amount of Hollywood magic can fix.

Complimenting the ethical ambiguity of the plot is stark and claustrophobic photography. The entire movie takes place in small urban apartments, the crowded streets of Tehran, and the overcrowded hallways of hospitals and courthouses. Characters are seen through doorways and windows, cornered by furniture, walls and other characters. Conflicts are played out in uncomfortable proximity, and enemies routinely transgress personal space.

The crowded composition and nearly constant urban din of cars and chatter combine to give “A Separation” a Kafka-esque paranoia, that strongly recalls moments from “The Trial.” No character wants to violate the space of another, but these violations are necessitated by circumstance. Razieh did not want to violate (according to her religious views) Nader’s father by undressing him, but she must make money to keep her husband out of debtor’s prison. Likewise, Nader did not want to shove Razieh, but he felt the need to protect his father and daughter from a potentially dangerous (or at least irresponsible) stranger.

The camera seems to breed these conflicts by squeezing the characters together into tight spaces and into an even tighter frame. Furthermore, with all the action in claustrophobic spaces, no character can be ignorant of the immediate or long-term effects of his or her actions. Other characters are right there to show the flaws in every single choice. Thus, the film captures the moral complexities of urban modernity, where complete strangers with potentially radically different world-views are forced to live on top of each other, and the seemingly unsolvable conflicts that arise therefrom. “A Separation” is a film that will haunt you for days after leaving the theater. You will wrack your brain trying to find a satisfying solution to the ethical dilemmas presented in the film. Frankly, this film should be required viewing for any class on ethics. The dilemmas it proposes, the distinct and stark photography, and the superb acting, all make “A Separation” one of the best films to come out so far in this century.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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