Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation seems to be the highbrow imported hit of the moment, vacuuming up awards and accolades with an efficiency rare for Iranian films lately and all but unheard-of for foreign domestic dramas without a learn-to-love-life-again happy ending. Everything you’ve heard, save whatever obligatory online backlash might’ve trickled into the dialogue, is true about Farhadi’s film – it’s ferociously wise, gripping, unsettling and acted with unerring conviction. But the fact that it may be turning into the only Iranian film many Americans are likely to see – at least, in the more than 15 years since Jafar Panahi’s global hit The White Balloon – requires a little more context, particularly since Farhadi’s movie is nothing if not a crucible for the social firefight that is Iranian gender politics.
The film entails a couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) trying to divorce. She is set on moving out of Iran for feminist reasons only hinted at; he must stay to care for his Alzheimer’s‑inflicted father. She moves out, and so he must hire a woman to care for the old man during the day, which the caretaker attempts to do with her young daughter in tow. What happens thereafter, often with the couple’s stunned 11-year-old daughter caught in the middle, keeps happening, like a cascade of exploding dominoes, until everyone’s life is broken in half.
The entire story hinges, craftily, on the exigencies of Sharia law as it applies to what women can or cannot do in Iran. One aspect of the law that has maddened filmmakers for decades now is the edict against unmarried men and women touching – which includes actors playing husband and wife. (This is why so many Iranian films have focused on children.) A pivotal moment in A Separation involves just such a touch – or was it a shove? – that we never quite see. Leaving it as ambiguous to us as it is to the film’s characters isn’t just a narrative homerun, it’s a riposte to the essence of Sharia law. How could we decide who is right or wrong, or what truth is, if we’re forbidden to see something as essential as touch?
Iranian filmmakers have always rebelled. Panahi and director Mohammad Rasoulof are currently both under house arrest for dissent, and both have been forbidden from making films for 20 years. For Panahi, the result of this oppression is the imperative to make a film anyway, a self-denying record of his imprisonment titled This Is Not a Film (2010). Abbas Kiarostami rather astonishingly negated the Sharia law about women covering their hair in public by having an actress in Ten (2002) unveil herself to reveal complete and defiant baldness. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, a pragmatic feminist filmmaker, dared in her film Under the Skin of the City (2001) to not only show a woman’s uncovered hair (while it was being washed; the censors bitched but Bani-Etemad prevailed), but also touching – as one woman confronts her best friend’s abusive brother after an off-screen “honor beating” and smacks him across the face.
With A Separation, Farhadi is even more subversive, because he weaves these issues into a shatteringly tense narrative, daring even Iranian clerics to empathize with the problems such fervent patriarchy creates. You could look at it almost as a kind of nonviolent protest, compared at least to Panahi’s confrontationalism. But it’s insidiously effective: The caretaking woman must keep her job secret from her hothead husband because it involves washing the old man’s incontinent body (she is devoutly concerned as well that it’s a sin, and calls her cleric for a ruling). She has an even better reason for keeping the secret: She’s pregnant, which puts her in a compromised position as a working woman.
As the daughter of the main couple, Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter, tellingly) is actually the moral crux the film slyly rocks upon. Her hopeful presence and wilting destiny in a Sharia state is the silent fuel that caused the titular conflict to begin with. What we’re reacting to throughout A Separation, even if unaware of it, is the strangulation of options available to this lovely girl, and millions like her. No matter how slyly it may have passed the censors in its homeland, it’s a protest movie.