By Jalil Kochai
The opening scene of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation immediately reminds one of Rakhshan Bani-E'temad’s Iranian New Wave film Under the Skin of City. In the beginning of both films the camera radically places the viewer within their narratives. Like in almost every masterpiece of Iranian cinema, the fourth wall is effectively broken in A Separation, as the spectator is put in the position of the judge, who listens to the arguments of Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi), and must decide whether to grant the former permission to divorce her husband. Similarly, in Under the Skin of City the spectator is abruptly thrown into the point of view of a documentary cameraman, who interviews the character Tuba, and asks about her opinions on the pending parliamentary elections and her struggles living in poverty. Ultimately, the strengths of A Separation lie in its ability to draw from specific techniques of the Iranian New Wave. Aesthetically, the film is near perfect, as its powerful cinematography and Farhadi’s wonderful use of mise en scène visually explores the lives of Simin, Nader, and those around them. However, in its attempt to depict class tensions in modern day Iran, the film often understates the emotional depth, psychological capacities, and religiosity of working class Iranians.
A Separation focuses on the separation of Simin and Nader, an Iranian middle class couple. Simin wants to leave Iran with her daughter in order to pursue a better future, while Nader, who is a banker, wants to stay in Iran in order to take care of his senile father. It portrays the emotional struggles that arise from this separation as their daughter (played by Asghar Farhadi’s own daughter) and those around them are significantly affected by it. It also centers around a conflict that surfaces between Nader, and his working class caregiver, as the latter accuses Nader of being the cause of her miscarriage. It explores issues of morality and law, as well as class dynamic in modern day Iran.
Throughout the film, Farhadi employs the close-up shot to capture the emotions of his characters. When they argue, when they speak of their struggles, or when they simply cry, the camera constantly isolates them from their surroundings. The close-up is most effectively used in one of the final scenes of the film, as Farhadi once again puts the spectator in the position of the judge. This time however the viewer/judge waits for Simin and Nader’s 12-year-old daughter, Termeh’s decision in whether she wants to live with her father or mother, as their divorce is finally granted. The camera lingers on a close up of her face as she attempts to give the judge her answer. Tears stream down her face, illustrating the emotions of the character far more effectively than dialogue possibly could. The close-up allows for Termeh to deliver to the viewer a silent soliloquy that in film theorist Béla Balázs’ words, “show how solitary it is in reality and what it feels in this crowded solitary.”
Farhadi’s editing also contributes to the aesthetic beauty of the film. He borrows elements of slow cinema to portray the sorrow and anguish of his characters. He constantly lingers on the menial task Nader performs in order to take care of his dying father. In one scene, the camera remains stationary for over a minute as he washes his father and eventually collapses on him, crying from grief. In another scene, the camera remains on him struggling to undress his unresponsive father in order to tend to his wounds. Farhadi purposefully extends these scenes to add a layer of realism to the film. He makes the spectator actively participate in the film instead of constantly changing shots which typically disassociates the viewer. In one particular scene, Simin drops her caregiver, Razieh off at a bus station. Instead of cutting to the next scene Farhadi chooses to make the camera follow Simin’s eyes as she see’s Razieh wait for her bus station with her daughter, illustrating the everyday struggles of poverty.
Farhadi’s mise en scène adds to the themes and plot of the film immensely. The household of Simin and Nader is littered with western art such as American painter, Andrew Wyeth’s masterpiece ‘Christina's World’ which establishes their bourgeois lifestyle. The costume design of his characters also contribute to this, for example Simin can constantly be seen wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and other western style clothing and her hijab is worn much more loosely when compared to other female characters in the film. The spacing of each scene is another aspect of the inquisitive mise en scène. Farhadi uses space to visually express the emotions of his characters, which is not surprising given the fact that he is an admirer of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. This is most notable in the final shot of the film, as Simin and Nader wait outside of the courtroom for the decision of their daughter. They do not address one another for the entire final scene. By simply making them sit on opposite ends of the shot, Farhadi shows that there is a permanent rift between the couple.
A Separation is the first Iranian film to receive the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. There have been several masterpieces of Iranian cinema by some of this generation’s greatest directors that did not even receive a nomination from the Academy. Farhadi’s film performs a specific ideological function. In his attempt to illustrate class tension between the poor (Razieh and her cobbler husband, Hodjat) and the petite bourgeoisie (Simin and Nader), he debases the former while idealizing the latter. This can be seen throughout the film, as Razieh and Hodjat almost seem to be caricatures of what Farhadi believes the poor to be. Razieh, the most religious figure in the film, acts hysterically throughout A Separation, most notably in her final scene, as she begins to panic and scream when Nader asks her to swear on a Quran that he was the cause of her miscarriage. In this sense, the film represents not just class but also degree of Islamic religiosity in relation to hysteria, emotional instability, and irrational nervousness. Hodjat, the cobbler is shown to be stubborn and is even noted to have a mental disorder, as practically every scene he is in ends with him losing control of his emotions. He constantly harasses Nader and his family, even going as far as disrupting Termeh’s education at her school. His anger climaxes in his final scene as he realizes his wife won’t swear on the Quran in order for him to receive the compensation for the death of his unborn child. He begins violently hitting himself, and the scene carries an absurd, awkward tone. In comparison, Simin and Nader are portrayed much more sympathetically. They are reasonable and compassionate; Nader even defends Hodjat when the judge sentences him to a few days in prison for having an outburst during the trial. Razieh and Hodjat are passive characters that are simply used to illustrate the humanity and ethics of Simin and Nader. In fact, the fate of Razieh’s family is never even revealed. The last act committed by them is a violent one, as Hodjat shatters Nader’s car window out of frustration. Is this the reason why the film was so acclaimed in the West? When Westerners saw A Separation, they saw an image of themselves. They saw characters they could sympathize with. Nader is a kind banker who simply wants the best possible education for his daughter. He even attempts to teach her French. And, Simin yearns to leave Iran and her family to go to the West with her daughter for personal gain.
Farhadi’s brilliant cinematography, precise editing, and strategic use of space between scenes all contribute to the visual storytelling in A Separation. While the film’s ideological undertones obfuscate the multidimensionality of those it depicts, it still provokes perceptive viewers to be more curious: How are the moral failures of the poor religious people different from the manipulative behaviors of the middle class couple? What is the relation between Islam and everyday ethics in contemporary Iran? What kind of a structuring role does religion play, not at the level of hierarchical governance, but at the base of a moral universe? What is the relation between modern secularization and class mobility? In this sense, the film is a moral inquiry into contemporary Iranian society. It is an exploration of the quotidian texture of life: the common problems, sensibilities, perceptions, and the emotive contents of interpersonal and social disagreements.
Jalil Kochai was born in Oakland, CA but his family is originally from Lowgar, Afghanistan. He studies film and history with an emphasis on modern Afghanistan.