The Iranian film director, Asghar Farhadi’s film, A Separation, won the Golden Bear at Berlin this year. It is easy to see why. A messy, acrimonious divorce leads to a complex web of social, moral and religious dilemmas. The film is so morally nuanced that every finely calibrated glance or hesitation alters the audience’s perspective on the characters and what we understood about a particular situation. Moral ambiguities ratchet up the tension in the film. Farhadi is interested in the very nature of morality. He asks: "How do we measure morality, and on what basis can we say whether an action or decision is just or not? When I'm asked why I don't divide my characters into good and bad people, my answer is to ask what measurement I should use to divide them?"
The audience, far from being passive popcorn spectators, is cast as a jury who must acquire the wisdom of Solomon and try to determine some form of moral resolution. It is clear from the opening scene – a hearing between the warring husband and wife – that Farhadi is not going to patronise his audience with easy answers but make them work hard.
The marriage of a middle class couple, Nader and Simin, is falling apart. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband and daughter, Termeh, but he refuses to do so. Nader’s main argument for staying is that they must look after his elderly father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. When Simin moves out, Nader is forced to make provision for his father’s care and he hires a working class woman, Razeih, to look after him while he is at work. In the opening half hour of the film, Farhadi sets up this complex web of combustible relationships. When he lights the touch paper, he ignites questions concerned with the nature of truth and lies, faith and reason, modernizing attitudes and those that wish to preserve the status quo, moral responses that are influenced by secular influences and those where a sense of sin prevails. In an interview, Farhadi says:
Yes, and there are even more divisions – between father and daughter, for instance. But the main separation – the most important in Iranian society – is that between the different classes. A lot of people in Iran today lean towards a modern way of life, yet there are those who are more traditionalist, who want to go back to a mythical olden day. For the middles classes it’s more to do with individual freedoms. Class is where the real struggle lies. It’s turning into a hidden war.
Such divisions in society and religion are familiar in the West. But A Separation never deteriorates into inert ideological positions. Farhadi refuses to take sides. Instead, he uses domestic, human trials to provide a window into the broader legal, theocratic and class structures of Iranian society. Farhadi is determined not to caricature Iranian society, to turn it into a cartoon Muslim state. For example, he makes clear that there is no homogeneous, simple response to Islam. The educated, Nader and Simin, are not devout. The carer, Razeih, is religious. When Nader’s father wets himself, her first response is to phone an imam for the correct religious response. Can she as a woman help clean the old man? What would the Koran permit in such a situation? How far can you go? And it is the Koran in the final scenes of the film that seals the fate of Nader, who is accused of murdering an unborn child.
A Separation is not an Iranian film, but a film about a marriage in meltdown and that is something that transcends cultures. Beautifully acted, A Separation has all the tension of an Alfred Hitchcock film and will leave you with sweaty palms. But it also has a penetrating intelligence that continually shifts moral expectations and makes you think deeply. Not many films do that these days. A Separation honours the audience by treating it as an intelligent community. That is what the very best cinema should and can do. A Separation does.