I remember one of the first times I encountered a foreign film. Flipping through channels, I landed on something black and white, in an old mansion with a girl running. The look on her face told me she was scared and I was hooked. It turned out to be a French version of Beauty and the Beast, complete with white subtitles and someone in a beastly costume that reminded me of Sweetums from The Muppets. After a while, my mom came in, probably curious of the French she could hear from the next room. One look at French-Beast-Sweetums led her to question what on earth her child was watching. To this day, I love to find movies that bring people out of their comfort zones, foreign or otherwise.
A Separation is the latest Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. From Iran and directed by Asghar Farhadi, it tells the story of a family falling apart. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to divorce from her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and travel abroad with their only child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), so that she can have more opportunities for a better life. Nader agrees to divorce, but refuses to let their daughter go. Instead, he wants to stay in Iran to take care of his father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. After Simin leaves and moves in with her parents, he hires a caretaker to stay with his father during the day, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), who brings her little daughter with her. She’s a very conservative Muslim woman, not quite sure how to handle some moments with the grandfather. When an accident happens, lives are changed, legal action is taken and both families can ruin the other.
The film opens perfectly. Simin and Nader are in chairs, facing and talking straight at the camera. They discuss with a legal authority their situation and grounds for divorce. The man, off camera, is unflinching and unsympathetic, especially toward Simin. He tells her she cannot divorce over every little thing. The final verdict is that she cannot take their daughter abroad without Nader’s permission. Even those unfamiliar with Iranian culture can sense women have very little control. The camera does not cut throughout the entire conversation. When the scene ends, we are intrigued in the couple’s situation and already have a sense of equally stubborn characters.
As the plot thickens, stakes get higher. More is at risk here than just a divorce and where the daughter goes. I do not want to give anything away, watching it unfold is captivating and pulls emotional chords you would never expect. The similarities and differences between the two families add even more depth and cultural understanding. By the end, I was in awe and in completely understood the film’s nomination for original screenplay
While watching A Separation, I was reminded what originally drew me to foreign films. There are situations that speak universally, no matter the culture or language barriers. Just like I could see the fear on that French girls face years ago, I could see the hurt, struggle and despair in every character in A Separation. Simin is strong and determined but never turns her back on family. Nadar is growing weary, his eyes always red and tired, but goes on, determined to keeps his family together in Iran. With Somayeh, covered in her black veil, we can only see her face at most times, but that is all we need. Her grief is written all over it. When Termeh falls to her knees, our heart sinks. And that moment toward the end, where the two daughters of equally torn families look at each other, so young and sullen, is one of the most telling moments in the film. Though the situation is unique, you could watch without subtitles and understand each character’s emotions. If foreign films are outside your normal comfort zone, branch out and see A Separation.
“-Didn’t you say it’s not serious? –It got serious.”