Saturday, April 13, 2019
Asghar Farhadi | جدایی نادر از سیمین Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation)
out of the circle, out of the square
by Douglas Messerli
Asghar Farhadi (writer and director) جدایی نادر از سیمین Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín (A Separation) / 2011
Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film, A Separation has so very much on its mind that it’s somewhat difficult to know where to begin in describing it. In many respects it is a cultural statement of the oppositions and strains of contemporary Iranian life.
After all, the central conceit of the film is that a forward-looking wife Simin (Leila Hatami), displeased with the situation in Iran, wants to immigrate with her daughter, Termah (Sarina Farhadi) and husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) in order to escape the increasingly harsh restrictions her world imposes. One of those very restrictions is that husbands, by law, have rule over their wives, and since he refuses to leave, Simin must file a divorce decree in order to proceed. It’s not that she doesn’t love her husband, but simply that she desires a better life for her teenager daughter.
Yet, since Nader refuses, the Iranian judge cannot allow her to gain custody over her daughter, which negates even her logic for the separation. In short, the inequality of the sexes in this culture reifies her desires quite early in this film.
Nader’s reason for his inability to leave is, outwardly, a seemingly logical one: his father (played by Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has advanced Alzheimer’s desire, and he refuses to abandon him.
Although Farhadi makes it quite apparent that Nader is totally devoted to his father, however, it is also a rather false excuse, since he works all day and is seldom there to actually care for the man to whom he is so devoted.
Indeed, once Simin leaves Nader to move in with her mother—when the separation is actually effected—the couple are forced to hire a worker to care for the elderly man. The woman they choose, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who must travel a long distance each day from a poor suburb, could not have been a worse candidate. First, she is deeply religious, which makes it difficult to even touch, let alone clean up a man who has lost the control of his bowels. Furthermore, she has not received the permission, a requirement of her beliefs, from her hot-headed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who currently is without a job and temporary incarcerated. Razieh must take her young daughter with her to work. Most importantly, she is not only unequipped to cope with her new responsibilities, but she is pregnant, and in her condition unable to care for a man who falls, needs cannisters of oxygen in order to breath, and cannot even eat by himself.
At one point Razieh enters his room to discover that he has escaped the apartment and is forced to run after him in the streets, almost—or perhaps actually being—hit by a passing automobile.
The very first day of her service as a nurse, after her patient has pissed his pants, she must call a phone hot-line just to determine whether it is permissible for her to clean him up. We see, accordingly, exactly why Simin wants to remove herself and daughter from such an environment without her having to say a word. When a culture is not even allowed to fulfill their duties, to help others in great need, and to live out their desires, we recognize that something is terribly amiss. Who wouldn’t want to escape such a world?
And it gets even worse, when one day, returning home early, Nader finds his father almost comatose, one of his hands tied to the bed. We discover later that Razieh has needed to visit the doctor and was simply attempting to prevent another escape of man for whom she was caring. When Nader also discovers that some of his money is missing, he blames the nurse, along with declaring her abuse of his father.
We don’t truly see whether he pushes her literally out the door as he fires her; Farhadi is too subtle a director to show the actual actions; yet that is what Hodjat and his lawyers claim has caused his wife’s miscarriage. Did Nadet not know of her pregnancy?
No one in this drama gets spared from the cruelties of the draconian system. If found guilty Nader will be imprisoned for years. Even the absent Simin, separated from the events, must return to protect her husband, whom it appears did know that Razieh was expecting (he admits as much to his daughter), but who also rightfully questions whether his hired nurse might have been abused by her husband. She even hints that perhaps the automobile incident might have been the cause of her miscarriage. In this society blame is heaped upon nearly everyone involved. It was Simin, we later perceive, who took the money to help pay moving expenses, not Nader’s new hire.
In such a patriarchal world, perhaps a “separation” is the only choice women can make, and ultimately Termah, the couple’s daughter is asked to make the same choice: does she wish to go with her father or mother? We never hear her final decision. She asks that both her parents leave the courtroom so that she might reveal her choice to the judge alone. And, given her father’s confessions, we cannot be sure whether or not she will be able to choose rightly. Both of her parents have selected intractable routes, which lead in entirely opposite directions.
Yet, Farhadi does reveal a truly essential fact: as difficult as it is, Simin has chosen to move ahead into the future, while Nader has preferred to turn to the past to care for a man who no longer even knows his name or who he is. At the expense of his current family, Nader has clung to the memory of his childhood to care of the incognizant man who nurtured and cared for him. No one, of course, should be forced to decide between these alternatives. Yet, we can be sure, that these impossible choices are not limited to Iran. In this film, the director simply heightens the tensions and pulls that many individuals and couples around the world are subject to. And that, in turn, helps to lift this wonderful film out of a cultural battle of religious beliefs in Iran to a film of universal value.
As I grow into role of an elderly man—without having any of the family protections that even Nader’s father had—I fear, obviously, what might happen to me if I might fall into dementia or Alzheimer’s. Both my mother and her sister suffered, in the end, these diseases. But I can assure you that I would hope no young person should have to choose to alter their lives, their movement forward or away, in order to nurse me. As painful as it is to say this: Nader and Simin should have simply moved off—particularly in the world in which they were entrapped—to leave the unknowing old man behind to die. Perhaps this entire society (I do not mean simply the Iranian world) that has entrenched itself in the past for far too long in order to allow its younger participants no room to breathe. I can only hope that Termah suddenly comes to perceive that her mother’s choice was the only viable one.
Los Angeles, April 13, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2019).