A Separation is an unsavory gruel of overheated conversations, long-standing resentments, deep familial affections, hopes for a better life, unshakeable religious faith, and economic desperation. The plot thunders on like an express train that’s jumped the rails, and though the violence, in the end, amounts to little more than a few slaps and shoves, every frame carries an uneasy current. The two-hour film, shot with natural light in apartments and on the streets of Tehran, goes by in a flash. It’s Iranian, but as we leave the theater we’re likely to have Aristotle’s theory of poetic catharsis running through our heads: a sense of purification after the release of pent-up or horrific emotions.
As the film opens, eighteen months have passed since the Iranian couple at the center of the action applied for a visa to leave the country. The visa has now, finally, come through, but Nader is unwilling to leave without his father, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. His wife, Simin, considers it imperative to leave Iran for the sake of their daughter, Termeh, a bright and seemingly docile adolescent who’s obviously taking in every angry work exchanged in the apartment.
However, Simin doesn’t want her father-in-law to come along. Though it’s never mentioned, this is probably another reason she’s so eager to leave Iran: she’s the one who takes care of him, morning, noon, and night, though he doesn’t recognize anyone and seldom speaks.
It’s a tough situation, and it becomes tougher when Simin leaves the apartment to move back in with her parents. Most of the film deals with troubles that ensue when Nader is forced to hire a stranger—a very orthodox working-class woman with a hot-headed husband—to take care of his father in Simin’s absence.
Having emphasized the crackling energy and relentless distress of A Separation, let me add that in many ways it resembles any number of quiet, talky films by the Swiss auteur Eric Rohmer. In the first place, two children are near the center of the plot. And much of the second half of the film focuses on whether or not people are telling the truth—one of Rohmer’s favorite themes. (Remember Pauline at the Beach?) We in the audience are not quite sure who’s on the level as a court inquiry into an incident at the apartment mushrooms out of control, but Termeh also wants to know if her parents are lying, and if so, why? An even younger girl, the daughter of the family’s newly-hired female attendant, also stirs the pot by guilelessly offering a few timely revelations, without giving it much thought.
Whether A Separation is a truly great film is a question we can leave for others to decide. It’s certainly a griping one, though largely devoid of humor or romance. It’s a drama of bad communication and bad luck, pride and desperation. Anyone who cared to could easily find parallels to the current political stand-off between Iran and the United States. But the film also carries a simpler message: for better or worse, Iranians are in many ways just like us.