Wednesday, December 14
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
Farhadi wastes no time setting up intractable feuds. Simin's desire to raise her daughter outside Iran's constrictive theocracy naturally earns sympathy from this secular viewer, but she callously disregards Nader's reason for wanting to stay, namely, his Alzheimer's-stricken father who needs his son's care. This is but the first of the film's many quandaries of responsibility and ethical obligation: Simin has grown weary of caring for her father-in-law and feels no inherent accountability for the man, while Nader could not live with himself if he shuffled off the onus of caregiving to a stranger and left. Who's wrong here? Not even a judge can say, and when the couple returns home, Simin decides to cut off the whole argument by moving back in with her parents, leaving Nader and their pubescent daughter Termeh to fend for themselves.
Simin's annoyance at her current lifestyle becomes clear largely in her absence. Left to fend for themselves, Nader and Termeh reveal a complete lack of basic know-how as a result of the wife tending to all the housekeeping. They hunch over the washer as if it were an alien device with indecipherable settings, Termeh at last hitting upon the idea of always setting it to a particular type of wash because the number designating it as such is the most faded, suggesting the most frequent use. Her desire to leave also reveals another key flaw in Nader's seemingly noble endeavor to look after his father, namely that Simin is the one who does most of the work in cleaning and caring for the old man. And despite being so willing to leave the father behind, Simin recognizes the man needs help, so she hires a pregnant woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to come look after him. From Simin's point of view, this is an act of kindness, but a series of incidents erupts from this decision that will implicate every introduced character in some terrible breach of ethics and duty.
Razieh's presence only compounds the issues of responsibility, and Farhadi's camera stays with each character just long enough to privilege that person's particular perspective before introducing a voice that viciously undercuts that outlook. With Nader and Termeh gone during the day, the camera can only stay with Razieh, who has accepted money to look after Nader's father but was not told of just what she would have to do. Cleaning up an incontinent man goes against her deeply held religious beliefs, and the stress of handling a grown person as a child grates before the first day is done. With Razieh, one sees her objections; she's not trained for this, and to spring the hardship of caring for an Alzheimer's patient on a stranger is unfair. But when Nader returns home to her objections and, later, her horrifying failures to adequately look after her charge, his concern for his father overrides any consideration of her reasonable objections.
Motivation is always clear in A Separation, Farhadi's script giving the characters ample chance to explain themselves. But their motivations lead to selfish, narrowly considered actions that spiral so far out of control that all anyone can do is look for anyone else to blame, not merely out of self-protection but psychological inability to cope with the thought of being even partly to blame for the gut-wrenching occurrences littered across the film. Late in the film, when Simin must return to handle a crisis that threatens to send Nader to prison, the husband contends that her departure caused all of this, and Simin has been off-screen for so long that Farhadi almost, almost, seems to be agreeing with him. Then Simin caustically reminds her estranged husband that she was only gone a week, that his own failure to handle the basic functions of surviving without her has led to a disaster in mere days. I remember Hatami from her star-making turn in the devastating Leila, where she played the spineless woman so ingratiating to her husband's family that she helped tear apart her happy marriage trying to do what she thought would please her already-content husband. Simin is light-years away from Leila, a steely force of resolve who can shred her husband's self-righteous guiltlessness in seconds, even twisting the knife as she mockingly reminds him of the mistake he made in throwing a pregnant woman from his doorstep.
The legal case that arises from that forcible expulsion, and the tragedy that potentially arises from it, defines the narrative direction of the film's second half, but it really serves to introduce another facet to the film's questions of deferred responsibility, that of telling the truth and using lies not merely to protect one's life but the whole fabric of one's surroundings. The principle parties, Nader and Razieh, clearly lie to protect themselves, but even outside forces weigh in for both parties. Razieh's violent husband Hodjat (a frightfully volatile Shahab Hosseini) and Termeh's teacher give their own testimonies, each with their own omissions or fabrications to look after those they know. "If she's supposed to tell the truth, why should she be careful?" Termeh asks her father when Nader warns a neighbor that investigators are coming, but she soon finds out herself when she and Razieh's own daughter, Somayeh, must testify on behalf of their parents and must choose between their own doubts as the prospect of sending a parent to jail. No one is innocent, but Farhadi shows how the prospect of chaos can so naturally, even benignly, cancel out the ethical drive to do the right thing.
No one ever apologizes in A Separation, not once. The desire to do so occasionally manifests itself on the faces of the characters, especially in the first deposition scene where Nader and Razieh exchange accusations. Nader's fury at the trial cannot mask his horror at learning of Razieh's pregnancy and the effects he may have had on it, and when Nader reminds Razieh of how she treated his father, she cannot bear to stay in the room. But neither offers a word of apology. To do so would be to admit fault, which no one can do, because the first person to show such "weakness" will, as they all see it, have to accept culpability for everything that has gone wrong. Nader cannot even bring himself to say that he's sorry to Somayeh for putting her through a situation she doesn't understand, only patronizing her with hollow reassurance as adults so often do to children when they themselves cannot justify their actions.
That inability to admit any kind of fault becomes a driving need to see someone else cave, and the final meeting between aggrieved parties, an attempt at brokering a peace set up by a weary Simin and Razieh, becomes one last spar between Hodjat and Nader for supremacy, with each man now trying to outwit the other side. One of them at last "wins," but the victory is so hollow it satisfies nothing more than one man's useless pride. It also marks the final break for our separated couple, who continue to foist off responsibility by leaving one last point of order in court to their poor daughter, who, after helping everyone else throughout the film, finally gets her own moment of selfishness by not revealing to the audience what her decision is. Of all the self-serving decisions in the film, some of which carried terrible consequences, this one is, structurally speaking, the most upsetting for its lack of closure, yet also the most forgivable. It is also a poignant close to the most devastating multiple-character study of the year, one that contains all the trappings of a movie about Iran's restrictions (religious and civil), only to examine the far broader limitations we all place on ourselves, usually without even knowing it.