Nader and Simin, A Separation

NADER AND SIMIN, A SEPARATION. Starring: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Sareh Bayat, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, and Sarina Farhadi. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 118 min.

This Iranian film (advertised as “A Separation”) has swept awards before it, wherever it has been shown. It was awarded the Ecumenical Jury Prize (for its religious tolerance, and humanitarian values), and won the prize for best film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011. Most recently, it was awarded the Oscar in 2012 for Best Foreign Language Film.

This engrossing movie is the closest film to a masterpiece that has hit Australian screens in the last three years. It is refreshing to see such good in a film that uses no vivid sex, drug-taking, gratuitous violence or crudity at all. The film is a compelling human drama, brilliantly directed and acted, about persons trying to cope with their moral, psychological and religious conflicts in contemporary Iran.

The movie begins with an Iranian middle-class couple sitting in front of a judge in Iran discussing divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country with her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader is concerned for his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. When Nader decides to stay in Iran to look after his father, Simin pleads for a divorce, but Nader will not agree. On hearing the case, the judge rejects Simin’s application, and Simin moves in with her parents.

Finding difficulty in coping, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who is a deeply religious woman from a poor neighbourhood to help him look after his ailing father. Razieh experiences religious difficulties in caring for Nader’s father intimately, and he wanders out into the street. Razieh has to leave the house for a short period of time and ties Nader’s father up to stop him wandering again. Nader returns with Termeh to find his father lying unconscious on the floor. In anger, Nader throws Razieh out of the apartment, and falsely accuses her of stealing money from him. When he pushes her through the door, Razieh falls in the stairwell, and Nader and Termeh later learn she has suffered a miscarriage. Much of the movie revolves around our judgement of whether Nader was morally responsible, or not, for what happened, and our judgement is affected by the fact that everyone seems to be lying to protect the ones they love. Nader attempts financial compensation, but Razieh thinks it is a sin to accept his money. She knows that Nader was not the cause of her miscarriage, and that she has kept the truth from her husband, who is emotionally unstable. The film ends with a counsellor asking Termeh to decide whether she wants to live with her mother or her father. The final credits appear on the screen leaving us to guess what her decision is – to live with Nader, or Simin, or maybe neither.

This is an extremely powerful film, which deals with its subject matter with complete respect and sincerity. It canvasses broadly the themes of parent-child relations, separation, moral decision-making, justice and religious commitment, and its power is strengthened by the invitation the Director gives to the viewer to engage with the solutions that the film suggests. It maintains tension throughout by holding creatively onto the integrity of its individual themes. Different moral viewpoints are communicated in a realistic and culturally sensitive way, and one emerges from the movie with an extraordinary grasp of the complexity of human relationships, quite independent of the culture in which they were presented.

There are also many wider questions the Director poses for us. What is the best model for Iranian women - the emerging assertiveness of Simin, or the powerful goodness of Razieh? What is the responsibility of a child to her parents, and parents to their child, where love is not an issue, but relationships are fracturing? And how do class differences affect our understanding of religious tolerance and practices?

This is a film not to be missed for what it is, and what it says about ourselves.

Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Hopscotch Films.

Out March 1, 2012.