Ebertfest 2012: ‘A Separation’ between truth and family

With “A Separation,” writer/director Asghar Farhadi has given us a universal tale of children, parents and hard choices where, much like life, there are no happy endings. Family members have different needs and fulfilling them means sacrifices, but do we sacrifice the needs of the young for the old?

The original title of this 2011 drama is “A Separation of Nader from Simin.” At the 84th Academy Award, this film won “Best Foreign Language Film.” It had already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.


The story itself is simple as truth and complicated as family ties and guilt. Nader (Payman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are an upper midde-class couple in Tehran with one daughter, the 11-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants her daughter to have more opportunities and wishes to leave the country. Nader needs to care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from Alzheimer’s and wants to stay in Iran.  Simin has filed for divorce, but the court family judge doesn’t find Simin’s reasons for divorce justifiable under Iranian law.


Simin moves back with her parents and on her recommendation, Nader hires a poor, religious woman Razieh, to care for his father while he is at work. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) has applied for the job without her husband’s permission. Yet her family is deeply indebt and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) has a hot temper.  Razieh is a slight, nervous women, so honestly faithful and modest that she calls a priest to ask if it’s permissible for her to bath the old man when he urinates on himself. But he is larger than her and hard for her to handle.  In addition, although her husband is out of work, she has to bring her daughter with her.


Arrangements are made for her husband to take the job, but he’s jailed by his creditors before this is possible, and Razieh returns to work. On that day, Nader’s father wanders out of the apartment and a panicked Razieh leaves the building to find him, seeing him across a busy road.


The next day, Nader and Termeh return home but Razieh isn’t there. Nader’s father has fallen off the bed but cannot move because one of his arms is tied to the bed. An angry Nader confronts Razieh when she returns and in the confusion of him trying to revive and care for his father and get Razieh out, he shoves her and she falls.


Hodjat’s sister calls and tells Simin that Razieh had a miscarriage because of her fall and that Nader has murdered her child. Yet the question becomes who knew what and then who is telling the truth and soon does one have to tell the truth if others are perhaps lying?


Anyone who has watched or cared for an older family member who is descending into the oblivion of terminal illness understands the wife’s despair and the husband’s dilemma. As a son, how can he not want to care for his father who, from just the character of the son we know must have been a loving and caring father before his memory was stolen by that grim thief Alzheimer’s. Yet we can also sympathize with the wife. As the daughter-in-law, she has the burden of caring for her father-in-law, but must she sacrifice her life and her daughter’s to the care of someone who no longer recognizes her or almost anyone?


The daily demands of an adult who has become a child, a heavy and slowly moving being who is unlearning instead of learning, are mind-numbing particularly when one knows that unlike a real child, things will not get better but only worsen until death and death hover in waiting for many years to come.


I understand this poignant wake for the living.  Yet Farhadi doesn’t take sides and in translation we lose some of the subtle beauty of Farhadi’s script. According to the discussion led by Omer Mozaffar  after the screening, the names have significance—the difference between Persian and Arabic. While we might miss the richness of the words, the nuanced performances under Farhadi’s direction give us universals of the human condition.

The faithful might say, if only both Nader and Simin had had faith, things would have turned out differently, perhaps more happily. Yet that is not Farhadi’s aim or at least the film isn’t blatantly moralizing.

After such a betrayal of honesty and ethics just what does one deserve? A divorce? A child reduced to tears? A  life-changing choice when there are no right answers?

–My report from the Ebertfest in April 2012. 

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