A couple, Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), have opposite ideas about living abroad but the same opinions about divorce. They have acquired visas to emigrate from Iran, but whilst Simin is anxious to ensure a better future for their 10-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Nader refuses to leave his elderly father who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. When the judge refuses to formalise their separation, Simin resolutely departs the family home, leaving the obstinate Nader to contract the services of a housekeeper. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is a devout, impoverished woman who tends to the apartment and Nader's father with her own four-year-old daughter in tow. When Nader returns one day to find his father alone and compromised, his fury leads to an altercation that has unexpected and devastating consequences.

A mesmerising account of a complicated coupling.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Tehran-based director Asghar Farhadi’s drama, concerning a bitter feud between two Iranian families triggered by a marital separation, has been picked as the winner of the 2011 Sydney Film Festival competition by a jury headed by China’s Chen Kaige. It is a credible decision. This is a powerful film, though of the handful of competition films I saw, the courageous Egyptian film Cairo 678 about women fighting sexual assault (which received the jury’s runner-up special mention) or Miranda July’s delightfully kooky The Future would have made equally creditable winners.

While sharing something of the austerity common to that country’s art cinema – viz. its lack of a music soundtrack – A Separation feels quite different to many of the films we see from Iran on SBS and World Movies and on the festival circuit. Against the formal framing and considered pacing of many Iranian films is a more down-and-dirty aesthetic, with restless handheld camera frequently following the characters as they move from room to room. (Though this verité -style technique is far from unique – see Offside, Jafar Panahi’s film on female soccer fans trying to sneak into a game from which they are banned, which screened in one of the festival’s retrospective sidebars.)

From the moment it starts, with a married couple bursting into an intense argument in front of the government official to whom the wife is appealing for a divorce, the film is fiery, its characters rarely settled for long before erupting into angry opinionation. On one level the film examines the process of divorce – in this case, the wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants to live overseas, her husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), wants to stay home to look after his Alzheimer's-afflicted father, who shares their relatively spacious flat.

On another level it explores the difficulty of discovering the truth in a judicial system when there is no real evidence other than 'he said, she said." The 'she" in this case is not the wife, but Razieh (Sareh Bayat), hired to come to the house to look after her working husband’s father during the day, now that Simin has moved out to stay with her parents. (The magistrate ruled out divorce but separation is legal.)

When Nader returns home to find Razieh has gone out leaving his father to collapse and hurt himself while strapped to his bed, his temper goes off. He also accuses the helper of stealing, and in a rowdy altercation throws her out of the flat. Cue the helper’s incensed husband later turning up to accuse him of murder – Razieh had been pregnant and miscarried after Nader allegedly directly pushed her over on the stairs.

Farhadi keeps ratcheting up the arguments, with the police now involved and Nader potentially facing a gaol term for murdering the unborn child. What holds the viewer, apart from Farhadi’s inherent understanding of the mechanics of drama, is his use of narrative ambiguity and deliberate omission of key information. This puts the audience in a slightly stronger position than the police but not that much more. Is one of the parties lying and which one – or are they both gilding the lily? Eventually we find out.

The film touches on class (the carer is desperate to earn money, her husband being in severe debt) and the law but also the dilemmas of aged care. But all this would be academic if the performances were not so convincing, the drama so intense. Sometimes a little too much so. Only half way through I felt utterly exhausted by all the haranguing.


A Separation

Tuesday 4 February, 9:35PM on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)

Iran, 2011
Genre: Drama
Language: Persian-Farsi
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sarina Farhadi, Sareh Bayat
What's it about?
A married couple (Moaadi and Hatami) is faced with a difficult decision - to improve the life of their child by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer's disease. Winner of both the Golden Bear (top prize) at the 2011 Berlin Festival and the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this remains one of the most celebrated and acclaimed Iranian films of all time.