‘A Separation’: A Broad Message Sent via Minimalist Form

Bertolt Brecht once asserted that realism is in art should be a goal, an objective that aims at laying bare the causal network of society and unveiling the roots that lead to social oppression and not simply a style that reproduces the empirical reality. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) is a brilliant example of the type of realism that Brecht spoke of. It’s not a film that offers ‘universal’ and single-minded ‘humanistic’ messages, but instead urges the audience to understand that social oppression needs to be understood beyond the oversimplistic dichotomies of good versus evil.

Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival of this year, A Separation takes as its starting point a very simple story about the fractured relationship of a married couple. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaad) have been married for 14 years and they now want to split. The reason is that Simin, a successful career woman wants to move to a country outside Iran, in which there will be more prospects both for her and her talented daughter.

Nader disagrees because he won’t leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who suffers from Alzheimer. Nader does not want to keep his wife by force, but he’s unwilling to let her take their daughter abroad and this is the reason that he does not consent to a divorce. Given that in Iran divorce has to be mutually agreed by both parties involved, Simin will have to leave her family and temporarily separate with her husband.

Then again, despite the fact that this is a very modern and middle-class family, we can see how Simin’s departure creates a sense of chaos in the house. The question that arises is who is going to do the housekeeping and who will look after Nader’s father? To help, Simin introduces Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working-class religious woman who doesn’t hesitate to commute for 90 minutes to work at Nader’s apartment. Razieh doesn’t tell her boss that she is pregnant. After having an argument with her boss who accuses her of having stolen some money from the house as well as of having left his father unattended, she is pushed outside the house. The same day she is sent to the hospital and she miscarriages.

From that point, a confrontation arises between the two families. Nader is interrogated by the Iranian authorities, while Razieh’s husband becomes more aggressive since he feels that the authorities are prejudiced against him due to his class.

The film’s minimalist form downplays issues of content and brings to the surface issues of gender and class oppression in the Iranian society. In the end, we realise that Nader was not guilty for Razieh’s miscarriage, but the film’s intricate texture has managed to reveal issues dealing with prejudice against people from lower class backgrounds, the oppressive role of religion and theocracy in Iranian society and the thin boundaries between right and wrong, justice and injustice.

Nader’s daughter and his wife seem to question him even when his innocence is proved. The audience is left perplexed, since the film’s ending frustrates character identification and our temporary siding with Simin’s family.

Asghar Farhadi uses this simple story as a means of guiding us from the particular (a family story) to the general (broader social relationships). The story’s open-endedness negates any sense of paternalistic preaching and foregrounds its respect towards the audience which is not simply asked to consume a drama.

The film’s form is also telling in this respect. The minimalist style draws our attention to the materiality of space and the constantly shifting power dynamics within it. Furthermore, the minimum dialogue and the lack of extra-diegetic music do not force any emotions to the viewer, instead asking him/her to make sense of the material and not simply consume a dramatic narrative. Equally important is that the film avoids oversimplistic condemnations of the Iranian regime, showing that oppression can be propagated unconsciously, even by those who are at the bottom of society.

There are no extras with this DVD.

RATING 7 / 10