This Oscar winner is a classic drama. It pits two families against each other. Each of the members have a different role to play in the increasing tension between the characters. The story begins with a simple conflict between a husband and wife. Their decision to divorce is just the start of the story, which unravels in expected ways, leading to a charge of murder. The fact that the film is Iranian is inconsequential and yet works its way into the core of the film.
Simin (Leila Hatami, LEILA) has filed for divorce because her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi, ABOUT ELLY) has decided to stay behind in Iran to take care of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) instead of moving abroad with her and their teen daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). She don't see the purpose for him to stay when his father has Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes him, while he sees no other option because he still remembers the past. She moves out of their apartment and in with her mother, secretly wishing her leaving will convince her husband to give in. She doesn't want to get a divorce but doesn't understand her husband's feelings. In turn he does not understand her feelings, for honor means a great deal to him. Their daughter is trapped between the two not knowing which way to go, so she stays with her father because she knows her mother will not leave without her. This story is so universal to many families, in many cultures.
With Simin moved out, Nader must find someone to care for his father while he is at work. With little options, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a conservative Muslim woman who has not told her husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini, ABOUT ELLY), that she is caring for a newly single man's elderly father. On her first day, the old man soils himself. She calls a cleric to find out whether changing him is a sin. Their family needs the money so that the debt collectors will stop coming and putting the out-of-work husband in jail.
The story takes a dramatic shift when one day Nader and his daughter come home to find the old man tied to his bed lying on the floor. Razieh and her small daughter are nowhere to be found. Also believing that there is money missing from the home, Nader, angered, fires her upon her return. She, however, believes she deserves to be paid for her day's work and will not leave without her money. Furious, Nader pushes her out the front door and when he goes to see if she's gone, he sees her lying on the steps. Did his push hurt her? Did he know she was pregnant? Why did she leave the apartment in the first place?
From this point on, the action moves into the Iranian judicial system. A judge presides over the case and hears both sides of the argument, taking in the information to make a judgment on whether the husband is responsible for Razieh's miscarriage. It's fascinating watching the court proceedings. They are so different than the American legal system, yet, with this judge, they seem reasonable and moderate, unlike the most extreme impressions that come out in the American press. The core story is universal — the law has been broken and the court must work to determine guilt or innocence.
The court case not only illuminates the conflict between the husband and wife, but also the classes within Iran. Nader and Simin are middle-class and far less conservative than Razieh and Hojjat. For instance, Nader is diligent about his daughter's education and he is teaching her to be independent and strong enough to stand up for herself. Hojjat bucks stereotypes of religious Iranian men, as well. Yes, he is hot tempered, but when an accusation of violence is levied against him, he asks, "why do you think we're all animals" — referencing himself as a devout Muslim man. I found this moment not only enlightening for a Western audience, but I felt director Asghar Farhadi was speaking to elements in his own country, too.
As for the conflict between Nader and Simin, it works on a simple, personal character level, but also works on a larger scale. One could see Simin as representative of progressive Iranians who seek to move abroad to find opportunity for their family that do not exist under the current government of Iran. Nader could be seen as the progressive who still believes that change can happen within Iran. His father can be seen as the larger state, which no longer recognizes the moderate. However, Nader remembers the way Iran/his father once was, or at least what it/he was in his mind.
There are no heroes or villains in this tale — there are only different perspectives. While all the characters want varying results, their motivations are all coming from a good place. Choices are made and Farhadi leaves us to judge whether they are wrong or not. The separation lies between the characters inability to see the others' perspectives. The film really cuts to the core of where conflict on a personal, as well as an international political level, comes from.