While the first half hour or so will keep you wondering where all the accolades came from, once the movie gets rolling (and when it does, you’ll know), it’s worth it.
The separation refers to Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), an Iranian couple living in Tehran with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and Nader’s senile father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). Simin wishes for Termeh to leave Iran and seek a better life elsewhere. Nader does not want to leave his father. At least those are the reasons they give, but it’s implied that both are merely using the family as an excuse for their own desires to stay or go. Their refusal to compromise leads to divorce proceedings, with Simin going to live with her parents and Nader left to care for his father by himself.
Unable to hold down a job and tend his father alone, Nader hires a young woman Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help, though she doesn’t do a very good job. Her deeply held religious beliefs conflict with her duties, such as washing the father; she leaves for hours at a time to do personal errands; and she’s finally relieved from duty when Nader suspects her of stealing. And then something happens.
Suffice it to say, the event puts the two families of Nader and Razieh in conflict with each other and, eventually, the law. This is where a lesser director than Asghar Fahradi would launch into pedantry, attacking class, privilege, bureaucracy, religion, and everything else with all the subtlety of a frying pan to the nethers. Fahradi is indeed critical, but with an eye to nuance. He treats his characters respectfully by presenting almost every perspective (save the cold and uncaring government bureaucrat, who simply wants to sort the mess out as quickly as possible).
This sort of drama isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I love the escalating complications and complexities and how everyone has a reason (legitimate or otherwise) behind their behaviors, actions, and reactions, and each are examined in such detail that a definitive solution is impossible and betray the whole spirit of the film. Despite the personal failings of everyone involved, however, Fahradi, I think, is not criticizing people but rather institutions.
Early on, Razieh calls a religious hotline to see if bathing another man (the father, as mentioned before) is a sin. She’s informed that it isn’t, but it’s a overly simplistic solution that gives little comfort. Her husband, if he knew, would be infuriated, and no appeal to authority could console her personal guilt. Institutions can provide a technical answer, but not a satisfactory one. It’s a short sequence, but I think it underlines the message of the film; at the very least, it complements and foreshadows the events to follow.
The legal proceedings make up a most of the second half of the film, and similarly the bureaucrat mirrors the operator on the hotline, following only the simplistic letter of the law but ultimately serving its own end. Theoretically such an institution is meant to promote the greater good, but every minute the case drags on, it further threatens everyone involved: Nader and Razieh’s husband face jail time and the small mistruths she needs to co-exist with her husband violently backfire; even the witnesses’ lives, such as Termeh’s teacher, are endangered.
In the end, the characters decide to work it out themselves, and a partial resolution is made, but it opens up larger questions. I’ll leave it at that.
Aside from a slow beginning, the only other criticism is the shaky cam, which at times can be distracting but overall works. The writing more than sustains your interest and overcomes any minor quibbles. I’m glad to see the Oscars got this one right in awarding it Best Foreign Film.