A Separation, the movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture, begins in an Iranian court of law. Simin (played by Leila Hatami) and Nadar (Peyman Moaadi), an upper-middle class couple, are seeking a divorce. They sit before a judge and argue their case: Simin wants to take their eleven-year-old daughter out of the country where she believes the girl will have an opportunity for a better life. Nadar refuses to leave Tehran: he must care for his aged father who suffers from Alzheimer’s and Dementia. They interrupt each other, they talk over the judge, they ignore his commands.
To see this beautiful, impassioned women arguing for a divorce, and her husband who insists he cannot leave his father provides a glimpse into a system of justice that is foreign to anything we’ve ever seen. Yet the emotionally-wrenching arguments and the determined attitudes of both husband and wife are all too familiar. Ultimately, the request for a divorce is denied. Simin goes to live with her parents.
The story takes an unexpected twist: Nadar hires a young woman named Razieh to care for his father while he works. This seemingly innocuous act leads to disaster in ways that seem unimaginable. Razieh, a devout Muslim, must seek permission before she can change the old man, who has become incontinent. We sit in breathless wonder while she calls a religious hotline to ask if it would be a sin to wash and dress the old man. Uncomfortable in the job, she pleads with Nadar to hire her husband. When the husband is arrested for unpaid debts, she has no choice but to return to her job.
Each character in this film feels justified in the actions they take. When disaster strikes, they feel aggrieved, wronged, mistreated. In a clash of religion, values, and cultural mores, their lives spin out of control. The divorce not granted is revisited, but now there are three people before the judge instead of two: Simin, Nadar, and their daughter. All are dressed in black, an ancient Persian symbol of death.
The movie is set in a country few of us will ever experience. Iran is a hostile country, we believe. It is part of the axis of evil. If given a chance, they will do us harm. We should gird ourselves to fight against them.
See this movie, and you will begin to question these things. See how tenderly Nadar cares for his demented father. See the anguish in the eyes of his daughter. See the fear on the Razieh’s face when she’s accused of stealing and told to get out of Nadar’s home.
See this movie, and you will think of Iran differently.