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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 A Separation


Directed by Asghar Farhadi (2011)

You can always spot a Jimmy McGovern. There are never any simple answers. No heroes, no villains. The characters just try to do their best, to survive, to be decent. Circumstances and happenstance tug them this way and that and in the audience, too, we are drawn to sympathise with one side, then another, trying to pick who’s right, who’s wrong, before we learn, or relearn, that individual free choice is a myth. That the way people decide and behave is much more complicated than that.

If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s in Farsi rather than Scouse, A Separation would be a nailed-on Jimmy McGovern, a kind of Jimmy McGovern meets Sharia law. The chaotic streets and homes of Tehran could be any working class community in Britain, the characters faced with the same sort of dilemmas, making the best of a bad job.

When we join them Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are in the painful process of breaking up and we are sitting in the judge’s seat, listening to them argue.

Simin wants a divorce because Nader won’t leave Iran with her to find a better life for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (a great, aloof performance from Sarina Farhadi who reminded me of Saffron out of Absolutely Fabulous). The reason he won’t go is that he can’t leave his father, who we discover is helpless in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

“Does he even realise you’re his son!” yells Simin.

“I know he’s my father!” yells back Nader.

So Simin leaves, but only as far as her mother’s house. Nader, a relatively well-off bank worker, hires a woman to come in and do, including looking after dad.

In comes Razieh (Sareh Bayat), her young daughter and comic relief in tow, at which point, inconveniently, the father develops incontinence, raising the stakes somewhat for a good muslim. Or anyone, for that matter.

Razieh has taken the job to help pay off her husband Hodjat’s debts. Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) doesn’t know she’s working for a separated man, let alone wiping his father’s arse. Until, that is, he finds out. And he has anger management issues. Who wouldn’t.

Things get even messier when Nader comes home to find Razieh has gone out and left his father tied to the bed. Before long both of them are up before the beak on serious charges.

One of Sharia’s good points is that it’s informal and flexible – up to certain strict limits. As much as applying the law the judge is an arbiter, trying to find the best practical solutions for people.

At this one, though, even he throws his head in his hands.

We leave the tangle as it reaches an apparent moment of resolution. A decision must be made, one way or another. But A Separation leaves us hanging. There are are no right answers in Asghar Farhadi’s world, any more than in Jimmy McGovern’s.

July 5, 2011

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