I stepped into Broadway with absolutely no idea about what the film A Separation ( in Persian the Separation of Nader from Simin) is all about except that it won the the Golden Globe Award last year as the best foreign language film. I came away in a pensive mood, thinking, reflecting, perplexed by a gamut of thoughts, and emotions about human nature, the complexity of modern day life, the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in being human, the strange, baffling, unexpected, tortuous, labyrinthine paths taken by our divided loyalties: to money, to truth, to justice, to religion, to affection for those near and dear to ourselves, to our values and to what we would like to think of as our "humanity".
The film opens with two young people, a man Nader (Peyman Maaudi) and a woman Simin (Leila Hatami), married for 14 years and otherwise still loving each other, arguing before an older man sitting behind a desk in a tiny room, a judge in a really informal environment, presumably in Tehran. There is no lawyer for either side; there is no need to swear to tell the truth; there is no bundle of documents of written evidence which either side must first produce to the court/tribunal for the other to study before coming to trial, nor any list of witnesses together with their witness statements etc. The issue? The woman's visa for emigration will expire in 40 days. Her husband will not go with her. She wants a divorce. The woman says that there is no future in Iran for Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), their one and only daughter, aged 11 and wants to take her to another country for a better future. The man says that she could not because he would have to look after his 80-year-old father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) who is suffering from senile dementia and a heart condition which requires round the clock monitoring and a timely supply of oxygen. The woman says that his father doesn't even recognize him and that it makes no difference if he goes or stay. The judge asks if the man consents to a divorce. He says that he does not mind. But the judge determines that that is no ground for a talaq or divorce because the woman's problem is just a "trivial/minor" matter which does not justify granting a decree of divorce.
The women returns home, packs her things to go back to her own parents and asks her 11 year old daughter if she wants to come. She hesitates and then says she wants to stay, probably in the hope that this would be the only way of bringing her mother back to the family because she knows that her mother loves her.
Then we see the effects of the departure of the young wife: a new maid Razieh (Sareh Bayat) from a poor suburb, someone introduced to Simin by her aunt, would have to be hired to look after the old man whilst the young man goes to work during the day in a bank. We see the bargaining process, the haggling over wages etc. As the film moves forward, we see how owing to senile dementia and incontinence, the old man wets his pants and the new maid, who unknown to the young man at the time of his hiring him, is in fact pregnant with another child and working behind her hot-tempered husband Houjat's (Shahab Hosseini) back because the latter, a cobbler, had been out of work for 11 years and is suffering from depression and creditors are already at their doors asking for him to be made a bankrupt and to put him behind bars in a debtor's prison, had to telephone the imam to see if it is permissible for her to undress the old man to wash him. It is obvious she wants the blessing of the reluctant imam to do so. We see earlier how the young man reminds the maid to keep an eye on the the old man and make sure that he doesn't wander off. Finding the job more strenuous than she expectedfor her pregnant condition and without telling her husband about it, she asks her husband to apply for her job. Her husband does so, agrees to work for Nader but fails to turn up on the day he is supposed to show up because he is locked up by his debtors.
In the meantime, Razieh has to continue working. But whilst preoccupied with housework in another part of the apartment, the old man wanders into the street because he wants to get his daily newspapers. She realizes to her horror that he has disappeared and tries to get him back and in the process got knocked down by a car in the busy street, though not seriously. Then when the young man returns home the next day, he finds the old man slumped on the bedroom, his hand being tied to the rear end of his bed but with no sign of the maid anywhere. He was furious and dismisses her on the spot despite her pleadings to be allowed to stay. She tells him that her cobbler husband ,has been out of work for 11 years and she wants her wages of the day. The young man accuses her of stealing money from his drawer, something which she vigorously denies. In fact, the money was taken earlier by Simin to pay the movers. He would not change his mind. He pushes her out of the main entrance. Next we see the young man and his wife in a hospital, apparently the maid had a miscarriage because Houjat's sister calls Simin telling her that Razieh is in hospital with a miscarriage. She lost her baby. They next appear before the same judge, this time, the young man was charged with murder. He sets a bail but the young man could not pay. He pleads with the judge to be allowed to go because he needs to look after his father who would die without constant attention because of his condition. The judge would not budge. So he is locked up. His wife bails him out. And the legal battle continues. He too wants to file a claim for damages against the maid for neglecting his father, with Nader calling as witness Termeh's teacher to show that he does not know of Razieh's pregnancy at the time he pushed her out. We are shown Houjat going to Termeh's school to threaten her and the day following her testimony she withdraws her evidence she previously gave in favour of Nader.
Then we are shown Simin, Nader, Razieh and Houjat arranging for the Razieh's claim against Nader to be settled by payment of the settlement sum by three postdated cheques . Nader reluctantly agrees for the sake of Termeh's safety. All are in Houjat's house. At first Houjat would not agree but then succumbs to pressure from the elders of his family. But at the final moment, Nader asks Razieh to swear on the Q'uran that her miscarriage was caused by his pushing her down the steps outside his house before he would pay. She hesitates. Houjat asks her why. They retire to the kitchen. There, she tells him about the traffic accident and that she suspects that at the time Nader pushed her, the baby had already stopped moving inside her. Houjat is devastated by this revelation but after a slight hesitation, urges her to swear nonetheless because their family is in bad need of the money. She is determined not to because she is fearful that the consequences of her sin will be visited upon their four year old daughter. We see Houjat hitting himself on the head in a mad rage also behind a glass panel.
As the film ends, we see the middle class couple before the family judge again. He has decided to make their separation permanent and has to decide where Termeh should stay. He asks Termeh who she would like to stay with. She says that she has already made up her mind but hesitates to say it. The judge asks both parents to leave. They do so in the hallway, separated by a glass partition and not talking to each other. The film ends with a meditative look on Termeh's face.
This is really an exceptionally good film: the acting is natural and convincing, the camera movement smooth, calm and non-intrusive. Though there is little music but when there is, it is used to great effect. In the course of the film we see how different witnesses give evidence which consists of only half truths for different perfectly understandable human motives: for principle, for spite, for justice, for truth, for fear of personal safety, for money to stave off a family financial crisis etc. All the people appear to be relatively ordinary decent people, some middle class and some working class, with compassion, with principles, with love, with needs, with tempers and with stubborness , drawn together by chance encounters and accidents into a battle of will, of self-respect, of family "honor", for money, for self-protection, and in their own way, for truth and for justice. The film shows. It does not reach hasty conclusions. Although life forces us to judge, the film refuses to judge. It is sheer joy and heart warming to find a film of such caliber uncontaminated by the Hollywood style of film making: dramatic, subtle and sensitive all at the same time.