A Separation - Just Like Us

Leila Hatami stars as Simin in Sony Pictures Classics' A Separation (2011)

Consider this situation: a woman wants to leave her country to live abroad, only her husband refuses to go along with the plan. He wants to stay put in the big city they live in, most importantly because his ailing father suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. This point of difference being irreconcilable, they decide on a separation, the woman going to live with her parents, while her husband hires help to watch over his helpless father when he’s on his job at the bank. Meanwhile the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter decides to stay with the father, hoping that in doing so, she might influence her mother not to take the separation any further. The family residence is a spacious, modern apartment with a large bookcase, an entertainment system, and a foosball table. Have I mentioned this is a film about a family in Iran?

A Separation – Just Like Us

The film is called A Separation, and its arrival in our American pop life is timely and important. This is not because A Separation is a great film. It is great—Roger Ebert named it the best film of 2011, A Separation has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy—but the film’s extraordinary importance lies in its humanizing of the Iranian experience for an America audience. For lately we’ve been proselytized to support a probable preemptive war launched by Israel against Iran due to the latter’s suspected nuclear program. Once more, propaganda conflating an entire nation’s people with terrorism and monstrousness is being pressured on an American psyche susceptible to boogieman psychosis. A Separation is an artistic counterpoint to the idea of an Iranian menace. What it suggests more than anything else is they’re just like us. Of course, “us” being us, this is not necessarily a good thing.

The couple’s situation should seem culturally familiar enough—marriages in America crumble all the time because individual personalities are stronger than the relationship itself. This is true enough in the case of Simin, an opinionated, fiery redhead and Nader, her stubborn husband. Although Simin and her daughter, Termeh, use headdresses, they don’t wear the traditional chador or burqa. Their apartment has modern conveniences, including an oxygen tank for Nader’s father. There are no portraits of Khomeini, Ahmadinejad, or any martyrs particular to the Shiite variety of Iran’s Islamic faith. Termeh has a tutor for her studies. Nader admonishes her to work on her English, but doesn’t ever mention the importance of memorizing the Qur’an.

They couldn’t be more different from Razieh, the woman hired to take care of Nader’s father. Wearing a black chador, Razieh, and her six-year-old daughter commute from one of Tehran’s distant, impoverished suburbs. She is devout but does not communicate her fundamentalism to her secular employers. That’s revealed when she struggles to take care of the old man in her charge: he wets himself and she has to wash and change him. He is so old and incapable as to be virtually asexual; nevertheless, Razieh calls an Islamic hotline to ascertain that cleaning him would not be considered “a sin.”

A Separation - Just Like Us

Peyman Moadi as Nader in "A Separation.''

It’s hard work and Nader can’t pay Razieh what she wants but she takes the job anyways because she needs the money. She’s pregnant and her husband, Houjat, is hounded by creditors. But Razieh is quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility, especially when Nader’s father escapes out the front door. Frantic, she finds him in confusion on the edge of a busy street in his pajamas.

The following afternoon, Nader and Termeh return to the apartment early, horrified to find the old man lying on the floor, his arm tethered to the bedpost. Nader manages to revive him. “Scum,” he mutters sotto voce, discovering money missing as well. When Razieh and her daughter creep quietly into the house, Nader confronts her on her conduct. They argue and he fires her. She wants to be paid but he calls her a thief, infuriating her moral pride. Razieh persists at the front door and Nader shoves her out. When the neighbors come down they find her on the stairwell. Retuning to take care of his father, Nader breaks down and cries.

Later in the evening, when Nader is dropping off his daughter at his in-laws, Simin asks to see him. She says that Razieh is in the hospital. When they visit, they learn Razieh had a miscarriage. Are they at the hospital out of courtesy or culpability? Houjat, Razieh’s hot-tempered husband, believes the latter, that Nader is guilty of killing his unborn child. In the ensuing quarrel, Houjat throws the first punch.

The next day finds both parties at the police station. Houjat and Razieh accuse Nader of precipitating her miscarriage. Nader admits he was a bit rough with her but denies knowing she was pregnant. He also counters that Razieh was negligent with his father, nearly causing his death. However, the bigger problem is the death of the fetus. Since it was four months developed, Nader stands accused of murder. If convicted, he is liable to face a three-year sentence. Simin’s family posts his bail.

Nader may be accused of the greater crime but he is wealthier and more pragmatic than his accusers, causing Houjat to become increasingly unstable and a potential threat to his family. Simin desperately wants Nader to pay them off with “blood money” so they can move on but Nader is determined to guarantee his innocence.

A Separation - Just Like UsWhat we have is a nasty case of ‘He said… She said…’ In fairness to the film, it would be wrong to reveal any more of the storyline. Needless to say, the director, Asghar Farhadi, while leaving inconspicuous clues to the players’ guilt, keeps our sympathies unbalanced throughout. Had Nader’s shoving Razieh precipitated her miscarriage? Was he telling the truth when he said he was unaware of her pregnancy? Their troubles envelop Nader’s neighbors as well as the family tutor. No one is truly innocent. Judgment fails them at the wrong moments and mistakes are made.

I’ve never been to Iran but the cultural divide feels familiar enough. Nader and Simin represent an urban, secular, liberal bourgeois while Houjat and Razieh are part of a larger underclass denied educational and career opportunities, falling back on religion to protect themselves from the melancholy of poverty. It’s blue state/ red state dressed up in different clothes, spoken with Farsi in place of English. They go through their days eating meals, studying for exams, taking care of loved ones, bearing a long commute, cursing bureaucracy, worrying about debt, struggling with relationships in decline, overwhelmed by life. These people have much more important concerns than parroting the worst of state-run propaganda. No one is cheering, “Death to Israel.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the two families in the event of a war: if Tehran were to be bombed by Israeli jets with American-made missiles and later partitioned with checkpoints guarded by armed foreigners. If an insurgency were to develop similar to what happened in Iraq, a dead fetus and a disabled grandfather, tragic as their circumstances may be, would pale to greater catastrophes at large.

I lost interest in the Oscars and their self-congratulatory saccharine aesthetic a long time ago. But I am rooting for A Separation to win at least one award. Because millions of people tuning in will be introduced to this film for the first time. Because of the free publicity the film will receive. Because Americans need to know Iranians, with their fanatical stubbornness, incessant quarreling, questionable judgment, self-destructive tendencies, familial loyalties, and emotional breakdowns are just like us.