"What you are telling me," says a judge who remains off-camera in the opening scene of this film, "is not a good reason for divorce." That very principle distinguishes more conservative countries from the West's revolving-door marriage policy, a situation on which I will comment no further. Our invisible arbiter generously floats three scenarios in which the plaintiff, Simin Lavasani (Leila Hatami), might have good cause to rid herself of her husband, Nader Lavasani (Peyman Maadi): he is an addict; he beats you; or he does not give you an allowance. Students of human nature will know this triptych as the three failings of man: the suppression of his desires and emotions; allowing thorough conquest to his desires and emotions; and the forsaking of spiritual salvation for the idolatry of his piggy bank. The modern mind also knows them as the indefinite roulette of drugs, violence, and greed in the news, tales we have all heard a thousand times but which, for those involved, do not diminish in their tragedy.
Nader is, however, none of the above. On the contrary, even Simin assures the judge that her husband is "a nice, decent man." What she fails to mention is that he is a nice, decent man who ministers to his Alzheimer's-stricken father by himself. The old fellow has a sweet, soft, blank look. We do not know whether his life was marked by sin or goodness; we know nothing about him except that he is Nader's father. Not once do we hear of siblings who could help in his efforts; in fact, no one even suggests it, meaning either there are none or the matter has been so often discussed that it never needs to be brought up again. This renders Simin's request all the more cruel: after "eighteen months of running around and expenses," the couple and their daughter, 11-year-old Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter), have received visas to go and live abroad. This was six months ago and there remain only forty days before the visas expire. Importantly, the destination is never specified, because that would generate an unneeded political angle to a film that will focus its attention on two concepts of truth – the concept embedded in written law, and the concept particular to each individual. A casual observer may think that Simin's desire to leave Iran is justified given what we may have heard of its political climate. Yet by refraining from truly criticizing a political or religious code, A Separation is very consciously hermetic, urging us to judge the actions and words of the characters only within their limited sphere. If that is the case, then Simin is wrong: the couple can always reapply for visas in the future once Nader's father has succumbed to darkness, or they can simply send their daughter abroad. If her husband is willing to forego this opportunity, Simin claims, then he "obviously does not care about his daughter's future." "So you think the children living in this country don't have a future?" replies the still-unseen judge, a response that dampens her aggressiveness. When Simin meekly explains that she would rather her daughter "not grow up in these circumstances," the judge quickly answers:"What circumstances? Is she better off with two parents here or with no father over there?" To this the couple falls predictably silent. No one would ever claim that a separation of two good people who "have lived together for fourteen years" could possibly be beneficial for their child.
Two good people? Yes, actions throughout the film indicate that both Simin and Nader are morally responsible citizens, relatively well-off, well-educated, and open-minded. While they have numerous advantages in life, they are neither snobs nor vulgarians. And while others might eschew hiring an underprivileged woman (Sareh Bayat) to look after Nader's father, they have only the usual qualms of entrusting a house key to a stranger. We give away nothing by adding that as the woman, Razieh, begins to come to the house, Simin moves to her mother's place in symbolic defiance. Termeh, who will ultimately judge her parents in the film's final scene, remains with Nader because she knows, as one character observes much later on, that her mother would never go anywhere without her. This unambiguous truth pains Nader, who now questions his daughter's allegiance and consecrates far too much precious time trying to secure it, which brings us to another point. A Separation is a strange and unique film because it repeatedly and gleefully denies our expectations. Instead of showing us, as the title suggests, the difficulties a troubled couple might endure, it provides a metaphor for their split and their differing priorities. Razieh, now a substitute for the departed Simin, comes to help Nader but does not want to stay: the commute is too long; the pay is measly, even in her dire financial straits; she has to bring along her four-year-old daughter Somayeh, but with all the caregiving and housework has almost no time for her; she is repulsed by the need to change Nader's father like one would a baby (her aversion is later consistently attributed to religious propriety); and her volatile, unemployed husband Hodjat (a marvelous Shahab Hosseini) neither knows nor would approve of her new job. After a couple of tiring days, including one in which Nader's father escapes to buy a newspaper, Razieh is fired by Nader for having left the apartment and tied his father to the radiator. Nader also accuses her of theft, triggering a chain of events that must be left to the curious viewer to discover.
There is something else about Razieh that we will come to learn, and in a key scene in the film, we hear a personal conversation that is unmistakable in its subject matter, but the camera's placement does not allow us to confirm precisely which characters are also privy to it. Razieh is a woman of faith who nevertheless time and again will act in blatant contradiction to what we understand to be her religious principles. Why would she do such a thing? The answer may be found in her husband, whose uncouth and deranged behavior so contrasts with Nader's as to make the two husbands obvious foils. Hodjat was once a cobbler who was released without compensation and told "to seek justice if he pleases." Justice failed him, and now he cannot support his family, a multi-pronged curse in a conservative country. As a result, Hodjat believes in God, but no longer believes in man's ability to do God's will. This makes him desperate, crazed, depressed, and violent. He is capable of anything, and everyone around him knows it. Again, those who tend to think of man as predominantly a political animal will understand Hodjat's and Razieh's roles in very distinct symbols. To wit, the conservative culture evident may strike the outsider as odd since it succeeds in making women look uniform, unrecognizable from the back (even more so with schoolgirls), injecting otherwise untenable suspense into a couple of scenes when Nader is looking for his daughter. Farhadi seems to have considered this inevitability and gently steers us away from it by reinforcing why Hodjat has some good left in him, namely his honor and dignity, the last things that can be stripped from the poor, even if the cobbler repeatedly expresses himself in a regrettable fashion. There is also a revelation towards the end of the film that is not so much exciting as devastatingly truthful, and part of that revelation is the admission that we are not stronger than the law. The law, however well intended it may seem, only factors in certain details because otherwise it would become a holistic judgement of one's life, of one's sins and crimes over the course of thoughts and actions and years. It is then hardly a coincidence that all five main characters will end up doing something they believe complies with the spirit, not the letter, of the law, and each action has its own particular consequences. Perhaps that is why the term "legally separated" sounds more like a condemnation than a reprieve.