MostlyFilm’s Best of 2011 – A Separation

by Adam Howard

In a year full of big-name directors making big, messy, ambitious films – see The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Black Swan – I suppose it makes sense that one of the very best of the year would be a quiet little character piece, its ambitions only to capture life in all its complicated shades of grey. While watching A Separation for the first time, I remember thinking to myself that director Asghar Farhadi had created an entire universe for his characters to live in. It was only when I realised that that universe was the very same one that we’re living in now that I realised how truly special it is. It’s a film about an incredibly specific situation that touches on something universal, and while we in the West may not be able to relate to an awful lot of what happens to these people, the emotions that run through the film resonate far beyond the characters’ where and whats.

The separation of the title is that of Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle-class Iranian couple who want a divorce because Simin wants to leave the country with her daughter (Farhadi’s daughter Sarina, who is astonishing), who she doesn’t want to raise in “this situation”. Nader refuses to come with them as he can’t leave his father, who is entering the late stages of Alzheimer’s, so they must separate while they work through their differences. He puts an ad out for someone to look after his father while he’s at work, and the woman he hires, who is from a much poorer and more religious background, causes no end of frictions that eventually lead to him being accused of causing her to suffer a miscarriage – an accusation equivalent to murder in Iran.

What makes A Separation is remarkable is its even-handedness. Farhadi observes his characters with an admirable objectivity, never taking anyone’s side and never implying that anyone is entirely innocent. Everyone has their own version of the story to tell, with their own omissions and embellishments, just as everyone has their own problems and their own needs. The film’s power comes from the way that it’s not so much about who is truly guilty as it is about coming to understand why these people have responded to each other as they have. It’s not a film about finding the truth as much as it is about exploring the lies, about how blinded we can become to other people’s situations in our efforts to defend ours. Farhadi’s screenplay is the star of the show, and the fact that he manages to keep a firm hand on his ever-twisting story without it ever seeming overly controlled or written is a marvel – to have such a perfect marriage of intricately-drawn characters and rigorous plotting is rare.

But that’s not to dismiss his visual style out of hand. During the long opening sequence, Nader and Simin argue with a divorce court judge directly into the camera, putting us in the position of those who would make judgement on their character even before we begin to fully begin to understand what’s going on. After that, though, the camera becomes a far more Altman-esque observer, unobtrusively watching the couple and their daughter as they run back and forth through their apartment, her leaving, him caring for his father, their daughter lost somewhere in the middle. In many ways, the camera is another character in the room – not because it’s particularly noticeable or intrusive, but it seems to be following these characters with a keen, non-judgemental, inquisitive eye, entirely on the characters’ level. The apartment in which the majority of the film is set is probably one of the most brilliant set designs I’ve ever seen, too – all distorted glass and doorways, you can see into all the rooms at once but never get a view that isn’t distorted in some way. That’s the film in microcosm: people unable to escape each other’s scrutiny but never seeing the full picture entirely clearly.

Farhadi has stated in interviews that he’s keen for his films to be shown in his own country, which is why they aren’t as overtly polemical as many of his peers. To dismiss A Separation as apolitical would be foolish, though, as Iran’s current turmoils are deeply ingrained into the story. The two families at its centre epitomize their country various divides: between the middle and poorer classes; the traditional and the westernized; the religious and unreligious. However, whilst it’s true that Iran’s political here-and-now informs every frame, these elements only serve to contribute to the specific details of these characters’  lives. First and foremost, A Separation is about these people and what happens to them when they clash, and while this story couldn’t happen in London, we can understand it over here because we understand what it is to be human, in all it’s complicated intricacies.


My top ten, going by UK release dates:

1. Weekend

2. Margaret

3. A Separation

4. Meek’s Cutoff

5. The Tree of Life

6. Melancholia

7. The Skin I Live in

8. Super 8

9. The Interrupters

10.  The Woman

Adam Howard blogs at The Blank Projector.

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