The full title of title Asghar Farhadi's new film, Nader and Simin: A Separation, gives us the characters of and their current situation but it doesn't hint at the complexities and revelations that will be revealed over the course of the following two hours. Initially, the film seems content to focus on this central relationship which is on the brink of falling apart. Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are first seen sitting next to each other and talking directly to the camera as they address the judge considering Simin's divorce appeal. She wants to leave Iran and take her daughter abroad but Nader refuses to relinquish custody of Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) and insists that he must stay with his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's and requires constant care. However, Farhadi's film quickly makes us aware that it is less interested in the rights and wrongs of this decision than it is in the unexpected fallout from it.
The separation of Nader and Simin introduces us to some new characters, who will eventually become embroiled in the complex drama the writer/director weaves. After Simin leaves to live with her parents, Nader hires the devoutly religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to take care of both the house and his father while he's at work, and she arrives with her young daughter in tow. Razieh needs this job for the money but must keep her new role under wraps from her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), knowing that he would fly into a rage at the thought of her working in a single man's home. Razieh constantly struggles with the conflict between her duties and the strictures of her faith; when the old man soils himself, she has to ring her imam to find out if it would be a sin to change and wash him.
The whole of A Separation is driven by conflicts, both large and small, and Farhadi makes it extremely difficult for us to know whose side to take. Our perception of what we see is constantly shifting as Farhadi withholds vital information from us before dropping it like a grenade into the centre of the drama, causing us to completely re-evaluate the characters and their behaviour. All of the figures involved in A Separation are real, complex, multi-dimensional characters, all of whom have their reasons for behaving the way they do and who are alternately in the right and the wrong. It is so rare to see a film that treats its characters and its audience with as much respect as this one does and a film that turns its viewers into active participants, as we piece together the opposing stories presented to us and search for the truth. Farhadi is a director in full command of his material, and this is a marked step up from his previous work.
I make that statement as someone who thought About Elly (which won Farhadi the Best Director prize at Berlin) was one of the best films of 2009. That picture was similarly built upon a web of deceit, as a series of lies gradually spun out of control, and through his brilliantly written screenplay Farhadi explored the tensions and complications of Iranian society. A Separation pulls the same trick, but in a richer and deeper fashion. The contrast here is between the old and new Iran, as the traditional, religious couple of Razieh and Hodjat clash with the more liberal and progressive middle-class pair of Nader and Simin. Theirs is a conflict of both faith and class, with the hotheaded Hodjat raging at his inability to speak as eloquently in front of the judge as the educated Nader. All of these factors come into play, but Farhadi's focus is always on the human drama, allowing his wider points on life in Iran to resonate in subtle ways.
Farhadi is a wonderful director of actors and there isn't a weak performance in A Separation. The Berlin jury awarded its Best Actor and Best Actress prizes to the entire ensemble, but there are a couple of standout performances that I really want to highlight. As Razieh, Sareh Bayat creates a heart-wrenching portrait of a woman desperately trying to compromise between doing what's right and doing the best thing for her and her husband; her emotional breakdown when faced with the dilemma of swearing a lie on the Qur'an is agonising to watch. Also worthy of praise is Sarina Farhadi, as Termeh, who finds herself being pulled between her parents and forced to make choices that compromise her own moral integrity. She's a quiet, watchful presence at the start of the film who becomes increasingly important as it progresses, finally being asked to make perhaps the most telling decision of all as Farhadi's devastating drama reaches its tantalising cliffhanger of a climax.