The Iranian film A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, seems to me the best film of 2011. It is one of the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Picture, but by any sense of justice in any nation (let alone the self-assessed greatest in the world) it would have been nominated for Best Picture before anything else. The ways in which the characters in A Separation struggle for truth and honor, while yielding sometimes to compromise and falsehood, is not foreign to us. Few other films made last year give such a striking sense of, “Look—isn’t this life? Isn’t this our life, too?” In a complete world of film-going, we should no longer tolerate the label “foreign film,” especially since it seems likely that a film from France in which the French language remains tactfully silent is going to stroll away with Best Picture. The Artist is a pleasant soufflé, over which older Academy voters can wax nostalgic. But A Separation is what the cinema was invented for.
In Tehran, a married couple argue into the camera in the opening scene, trying to defend and escape from their marriage. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran, taking their eleven-year-old daughter with her, so that they can live in greater liberty. Nader, her husband (Peyman Maadi), is against the separation though resigned to it, but determined that the daughter stay in Tehran with him. He cannot leave, he claims, because he has to look after his father who has deteriorating Alzheimer’s. The court sides with the father, and Simin moves out of their apartment, leaving Nader, his daughter, and the victim of dementia. With a demanding job, Nader cannot manage—Simin was always at home, looking after things—so he seeks to hire a house-sitter. He finds Razieh (Sarey Bayat), a devout wife and mother who knows the pay is not enough, but her husband is unemployed and they are desperate. So she comes to the apartment every day on a long commute, bringing her own young daughter, and she finds that she has to clean the old man when he forgets to go to the bathroom.
Then one day, the old man gets out of the house and Razieh has to rescue him from dense traffic on the street. Soon after that, Razieh has to leave the apartment one day to go on an unnamed errand. She ties the old man to his bed while she is away. When Nader discovers this he is furious—this is abuse of his father. He demands that Razieh quit, and there is a minor clash between them at the door. Razieh is also pregnant and it seems that in the confusion she may have been so injured in that scuffle that she suffered a miscarriage.
That is a lot of story (though by no means the whole thing), and one of the most gripping things about A Separation is the way that its relentless forward action never slackens. Farhadi is nominated for his original script, and I think that’s because Academy screenwriters recognize what a masterly piece of construction this is. The film is a few minutes over two hours, and it is crammed with aspects of character and revelations in the action that require and reward close attention. Just about everyone in the picture behaves badly at times and well at others, and in every instance the plausibility of the situation is unquestioned.
At the Berlin festival of 2011, not only did A Separation win the top prize, the Golden Bear, but the acting prizes were shared by Leila Hatami and Sareh Bayat, and by Peyman Maadi and Shahab Hosseini, who plays Razieh’s husband. My only quarrel with that decision is the omission of Sarina Farhadi (the director’s daughter) who is brilliant as the daughter, Termeh. You can say this is a demonstration of an ensemble cast, but that is only half the story. The passion and texture of the film come from the idea that existence is already an ensemble, that lives are contingent on other lives, all the time. The shooting of the film is simple and concise (it only cost $500,000) and the director does nothing to distract us from the people and their problems. You would have to say it is a realist film, yet the complexity in its relationships makes the post-war classics of Italian neo-realism seem quaint and superficial.
I will not spoil the ending for you, or the material that precedes the ending, but the movie asks the audience to make up its own mind about what could and should happen. This is where its national character becomes relevant. A Separation is in the Persian language. I have never been to Iran. But, like you, I live in a country that is steadily being taught to believe that Iran is wicked and dangerous and the probable object of justified military action. It’s worth pointing out that on the Internet there were early comments to the effect that A Separation would surely not be released in Iran, because it contains many elements critical of that society—like the wife wanting to leave the country for a freer life. In fact, A Separation opened in Iran months before it came to this country; it did well, and was not interfered with by authorities.
You cannot watch the film without feeling kinship with the characters and admitting their decency as well as their mistakes. The American films made this year that deal with the internal detail and difficulty of family life—like The Descendants—are airy, pretty and affluent compared with A Separation. With the best will in the world, George Clooney cannot discard his aura of stardom, yet the actors in the Iranian film seem caught in their characters’ traps. That point about affluence is worth dwelling on. In 2011, not many American films dealt with money and its shortage in lifelike ways. It hurts The Descendants, I think, that its people are so well-heeled. Yet the common experience of the nation is the desperate effort to stretch money. A Separation is full of that and it works on the assumption that the means of life are vital to the way it is lived. It is a great film, the best from last year, and a model of how films can be made. In addition, it seems a lesson in our need to look at the truth of Iran, as closely as we should have insisted on the facts about Iraq and so many other things.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.