For several minutes, as the end credits rolled up the screen in untranslated Farsi, nobody got up to leave the theater. American audiences have been taught to expect some extra bit of plot during or after the credits, so as long as Nader and Simin remained waiting on screen for word from their daughter, most of the audience stayed in their seats. Was their wait rewarded? I won't spoil things for anyone, but I will say that Asghar Farhadi's Oscar winner earned that moment. If no one cared, no one would stay if they couldn't read the credits.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a power of arthouse cinema for at least a quarter-century now, but A Separation is the first Iranian film to win the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. I think that's because, despite sharing many of the general traits of modern Iranian cinema, Farhadi's film is more accessible in its presentation -- more editing rather than long takes, for example -- and has a subject of arguably universal interest. The major Iranian directors tend to take a neorealist approach, avoiding stylization in framing and inhuman camera movement and sticking to material that would seem hopelessly mundane when handled by American filmmakers. Speaking for myself, I'm probably more likely to watch an Iranian film than an American film on the same subject, because the Iranian film offers the bonus of a window into Iran. The Iranian directors are their country's best ambassadors in a way that their government most likely doesn't fully appreciate. For instance, Farhadi was initially refused permission to shoot Separation, though the government obviously relented, and the Iranian media seems to have reacted with ambivalence to the film's global success. But you can find people in any country who complain when a director appears to air the country's dirty laundry for the world to see. However, Separation isn't a particularly political film, though politics does loom in the background and may be present symbolically. There's really one early moment of implicit political menace, and it could well pass unnoticed. That's when Simin (Leila Hatami) insists that her daughter should leave the country with her because she has no future in Iran. Why do you think that? a judge asks -- but he lets the matter drop and there's no hint afterward that Simin is in political peril. Yet the fact remains, and forms the basis of the plot, that she wants to leave Iran.
The reason there's a separation is that her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) wants to stay. In fact, he feels he has to stay to take care of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Ali-Ashgar Shahbazi). He bristles during that initial court hearing (the judge remains unseen and the spouses address the camera) when Simin suggests that the father doesn't know Nader's his son anymore; "I know he's my father!" he protests. His insistence is admirable, but there's also a streak of self-righteousness to it that will emerge in other ways later. But the worst thing about their disagreement at first, from Simin's standpoint, is that Nader is willing to let her go if she wants -- doesn't seem to care if they don't stay together. So even though the judge won't grant them a divorce -- he considers their disagreement a minor one -- they separate informally, Simin moving back in with her mother. That obliges Nader to hire someone to take care of his father during the day, while Nader works in a bank and his daughter Termeh goes to school. This is where the real plot kicks in, as Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after the old man on Simin's recommendation. Razieh, who takes her young daughter to work with her, quickly finds herself over her head, unable and unwilling to deal with changing the father after he wets himself. Religion complicates matters -- she calls some sort of theological hotline to ask whether changing the old man is permissible -- but we'll see that class complicates religion even more.
Razieh wants to quit after that rough first day, but recommends her husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) to take over the job. Nader agrees, but Razieh ends up coming back when her deadbeat hubby is arrested by a creditor -- they still have debtors' prisons in Iran, apparently. She's still not very good at the job, but the situation seems to stabilize until Nader comes home early with Termeh one day and finds Razieh and her daughter out and his father on the floor unconscious, his wrist tied to a bedpost. When Razieh reappears as if nothing had happened -- and as far as she knew, nothing had, Nader flips out, accusing her not only of neglect but of stealing money. Her offer to swear on "our martyrs" that she didn't steal doesn't impress Nader, who finally shoves her out the door. He finds out the next day that Razieh is recovering in a hospital from a miscarriage that she blames on his physical abuse.
A Separation now becomes a kind of courtroom drama that showcases Iran's intriguingly informal criminal justice system. There's little of the "majesty of the law" we associate with American courts; each judge holds court in a modest, bureaucratic office, minimally refereeing a free-for-all of competing testimony. The judge's biggest problem is the recently-freed Hojjat, a hothead piece of trash who constantly threatens Nader and goes extra-ballistic when Nader countersues Razieh for her neglect/abuse of his father. There's a defensiveness to Hojjat that underscores the class difference between the two families. He protests that people like Nader think "we" are animals, and we're reminded of the cosmopolitan environment Nader and Simin live in. Their apartment is decorated with a print of Leonardo da Vinci's self-portrait, a copy of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World, and other icons of western culture, while Hojjat and Razieh's home is a ramshackle affair with cracked walls all around, and Razieh is religious to the point of hysterical superstition at a critical moment. I get the feeling that the class factor would leap out for Iranian audiences but might be missed by American observers who might be looking for signifiers of religion or political tyranny -- pretty much in vain. Separation left me with the impression that, as long as you're not a political dissident, the Iranian legal system gives you a fair shake. The judge handling the case seems firm and evenhanded, ready to consider every bit of evidence. The stakes aren't as high for the state, after all, as they are for the litigants. Nader is potentially liable for murder if found responsible for Razieh's miscarriage. The case evolves like a detective movie without a detective, as new evidence throws both versions of events into question and Simin's efforts to resolve the trouble through compromise threaten to make matters much worse....
We can say that we might ignore the same story if an American told it, but would Americans tell it? An American Separation was more likely at some times in Hollywood history than others. I can easily imagine a Pre-Code version, for instance, though it would probably be much more hard-boiled yet have an unambiguous happy ending. It might have been done in the Seventies, too, and even today someone might try it, though I'd bet it'd more likely be a Lifetime Original Movie than a theatrical release. In Hollywood, I suspect we're at a low ebb of humanism; it would take at least one bankable star as one of the spouses to get such a movie made and get it attention. In the U.S., humanism often has to be imported under the guise of exoticism. Sometimes that has unexpected benefits. If people go to Separation to learn about Iran, they might also learn something about people in general, and not just that Iranians are people, too. They would have some of the year's best acting from the Iranian cast to thank for that -- more so than Farhadi's efficient, sympathetic direction, the performers make A Separation a worthy challenger to The Artist for Best Film of 2011 -- period.