Article/ A Separation: Family Matters

The domestic upheavals of marital discord propel Asghar Farhadi’s riveting and award-winning film into an examination of contemporary Iranian life

By Ailsa Ferrier

There is a scene in A Separation when, during the early morning bustle of getting ready for work, a father stops to help his daughter practise for an upcoming test. When he attempts to correct her on a specific point of translation, she contends that she had been taught something different. He responds, convinced he is correct, arguing that “what is right is right and what is wrong doesn’t matter”. This offhand remark is central to this complex and compelling film, which was awarded the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

The separation that the title refers to is that of Nadar and Simin, a relatively affluent middle-class family living in Tehran with their 11-year-old daughter. The dispute over Simin’s desire to move the family away from Iran in the hope of a better future causes fissure in the household and she decides, for the time being, to leave the house and move back in with her parents.

Either through stubbornness or principle – another element open to debate – Nadar stays at home with their daughter, and hires a young and deeply religious woman from a poor suburb to look after his ailing father, who also lives with them. Unsure of whether her religion will allow her to take care of him properly when she realises he suffers from incontinence, the woman decides to pass the job over to her hot-tempered husband, who has serious debt problems. What ensues propels the film into a morass of moral confusion and multiple perspectives, and examines issues of honesty, class, revenge and even murder.

There is an economy of word and gesture in the performances of the outstanding cast, who all received honours at the film’s premiere. The intimate camerawork complements director Asghar Farhadi’s uncompromising dissection of contemporary Iran, highlighting the contradictions of more western, or modern, codes of conduct among a community still rooted in profound religious belief. And yet, in spite of its setting, the story and themes are universal, and the film begs to be discussed long after it has ended.

The recent arrest of Jafar Panahi (Offside, The Circle) and Mohammad Rasoulof (Iron Island) once again highlights how much the cinema of Iran has been marred by controversy. Theirs is the plight of any outspoken filmmaker in the region. A Separation was initially banned from being made after Farhadi, during an awards acceptance speech for his excellent previous film About Elly, expressed support for fellow filmmakers like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Panahi. The ban was only lifted after it was argued that he had been misunderstood and was forced to apologise for the comments. We are the beneficiaries of this decision. Farhadi is a master of his art and A Separation one of the pinnacles of recent world cinema.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

A Separation screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 1 July