ALS(Alex Leo Serban) did not like Iranian cinema. He considered it rural – a sort of Asian version of “Samanatorism” (literary ruralism) -, redundant in its minimalism, without any aesthetic depth. In other words, he saw it as a whim, worthy of attention only from the vantage-point of a “gauche caviar” segment of Western criticism. Asghar Farhadi’s films challenge this view, if only insofar as his protagonists are strictly urbanites, the representatives of the capital-dwelling bourgeoisie, be it Asian or Islamic. Except for some peculiarities of costume and subtle religious undertones, his films’ plots could easily pass for European collective/ family dramas. Whereas “About Elly” – in a subjective ranking, the best film presented two years ago at TIFF – analyzed moral versatility and the perverse dynamics of exculpation, “Nader and Simin: A Separation” tries to uncover the intricate motivations of a divorce. It doesn’t seem to have been a case of infidelity between spouses, the reflection of a contaminating mal de vivre or simply the inability to go on bearing the shared burden of responsibilities. The unfolding of the story is delimited by two court hearings, before a judge – a mere voice, off camera, essentially exterior to the drama – whose authority proves to be powerless in opposing the separation desired by the parties. In the end, the apparently shallow reasons invoked at the beginning do not become more persuasive, but the spectator – and the unseen judge acts, here, as a generic observer – gets a sense of inexorability.
The central figure of the film is separation-itself – and the two spouses’ daughter becomes symbolic of the marriage dynamics -, but the intricately-woven script seems to disguise it. The marital drama gives way to a domestic thriller, in which the man risks losing his freedom or his life, even, as he stands charged with manslaughter. Shots are characterized – especially when capturing a thicker flow of people – by a particular dynamism: an apparently Brownian movement of characters, in fact, a complex web of contradictory intentions, which reflect not only the confrontations between individuals, but, above all, inner conflicts. The director’s art consists precisely in interweaving these conflicts, so that personal attitudes are the result of this subtle – often uncomfortable – symbiosis. The human being’s moral fibre is characterized by an exceptional versatility, this is what the Iranian director seems to suggest. Whereas, in his earlier film, initial goodwill gave way – in tragic circumstances – to the unexpected solidarity of slander, here the play is subtler and characters are unveiled only partially and, at any rate, never definitively. There is very little we find out about the origins of the marital crisis, beyond the wife’s alleged abandonment tendency and an impression of blind obstinacy on the part of the husband. The relations between the two are already nearly exclusively mediated by their mutual caring for the daughter. Thus, what should have been the mark of responsible affection becomes the indicator of a major crisis.
The criminal charges – the man is briefly arrested, even – do not bring the two closer together, but become, instead, the pretext for a subtle game of suspicion. Even the daughter-herself, at a critical age, on the very brink of adolescence, allows herself to be guided on the shifting ground of doubt. As in a true detective story, the suspense associated with the gradual disclosure of details initially concealed leads to moral shifts of allegiance and the daughter experiences a painful inner wavering. In the end, her opting for one of her parents as her preferred guardian remains – at least at the level of meaning – an ineffable choice, wrapped in a web of unspeakable mystery. However, Asghar Farhadi is also an Iranian Lars vor Trier. The building of the plot as a sequence of moments under the weight of an ominous “evil hour” brings the two directors close together, even if the Iranian director does not lend an apocalyptic quality to his dramas. Starting from an implicit contestation of any kind of moral rationalism, Farhadi views the sudden slips of reality as likely to shed light on the moral life of a human being caught in the whirlwind of an imperious choice. Whereas, for the Danish director, Evil always has the last word, his Iranian fellow-artist does not have a Manichean view – even if a certain cultural tradition would justify it.
Evil has many faces, starting from the little girl’s unconscious malevolence – as she plays with the oxygen machine that the old man is connected to -, the wife’s selfish one, as she looks for additional excuses for the separation, the frightened malevolence of the woman who withdraws her testimony under pressure, the violent one of the day-maid’s husband or even the subtly vindictive one of the daughter. We find here a sample of consistent moral realism. What is of additional interest is the way in which the film manages to sketch a complex social picture. A muted social conflict – the two couples in conflict belong to two social backgrounds between which competition and implicit resentment do exist -, as well as subtle innuendoes regarding the role played by religion in moral choices. The director thus explores not only the insidious impact of unemployment, which has devastating effects even within the couple – even if domestic violence is not narrowly circumscribed to social causes -, but also conflicts arising from religious interdictions open to interpretation. The inherent difficulty of some tasks – in this case, looking after a senile old man, while doing the housework for a single man, on the brink of divorce – is compounded by little moral dilemmas, intensified by religious doubts: the inevitable need to assist the old man even when he is naked, as well as failing to tell the husband that she is working for a de facto single man, already living separated from his wife. Even the plot twist in the end, when the woman confesses her lie – which lay at the basis of the entire conflict -, is motivated by a religious spur of her conscience. The Qur’an acts as a moral ally: the man wishes to redeem his honour in front of his daughter – whom he feels he is losing in the context of the divorce -, and the woman cannot avoid telling the truth. Whereas, in “Dogville”, we were faced with a slaughter posing as a cleansing, in “A Separation”, tragedy is much subtler and can no longer be attributed to a demonic force out of control. In the finely-woven web, akin to a Persian rug, of moral life, the threads can be torn under the weight of a secret.