The voicemail said that I needed to call back soon. My mother’s voice sounded urgent. Phone calls from my parents were unusual, so I returned the call that evening. She said she was filing the paperwork. The divorce proceedings had officially begun. I had expected as much when she had moved out of my childhood home over a year earlier, but the news still carried a shock with it. A separation was one thing. This was divorce. What made my anger rise was the reasoning and motivation behind the decision: God is leading me to divorce.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has captured the complexities and brokenness of divorce (and humanity) in his Oscar-winning film A Separation. A married couple, Nader and Simin, sit across from a judge and pour out their complaints. The audience sits in the judge’s chair, staring directly into their eyes as they offer their arguments and reasons. She wants to leave the country. He needs to stay and take care of his senile father. She wants to give a better future to their adolescent daughter. He knows their daughter wants to remain in their home. He’s never abused her, but he is cold to her advances and frustrated by her whims. She leaves to live with her parents. He stays to take care of his daughter and father.
I’m not sure what started the marital downfall. No one is thinking on their wedding day, “I wonder when I’ll get to the point where I can’t stand breathing the same air as this person.” The film doesn’t offer clear motives or reasons for Nader and Simin’s separation, only suggestions and hints of past arguments. Clearly these two people have been building a teetering wall of tension between them for years, and it’s finally collapsing. When it collapses, it leaves a wake of destruction in its path. Their adolescent daughter, Termeh, is caught up in the struggle and becomes the singular bridge between her parents. The weight of carrying a failing marriage on her shoulders is nearly unbearable.
Farhadi manages to create a strikingly humane and complex narrative surrounding this marital separation. Each character is both a hero and a villain, a victim and a perpetrator. Characters’ faces are often framed in windows, looking through the glass, conscious of the invisible barrier that separates them. There is a constant atmosphere of tension, sometimes quiet and unspoken, other times explosive and enraged. The separation between Nader and Simin sets off a chain reaction of events that lead to tragic consequences. The decisions seem simple enough: hire movers to take Simin’s belongings, get a caretaker to watch Nader’s father during the day, etc. But the tiny fractures in the glass of these relationships continues to splinter and spread, continuing to spiderweb until the glass completely shatters.
A Separation is set squarely in the Muslim culture of Iran, and religion certainly plays a significant role in narrative. Yet the story feels transcultural. A separation could have happened anywhere, to any family. And it does. It happened to mine. If statistics are accurate, there’s a strong chance it happened to yours. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that we often forget the devastating implications. Divorce is a losing game for everyone. There are no winners here, no one coming out of the fray unscathed. Even the most outwardly cordial and decorous divorce has deep rivers of brokenness underneath the surface. In his insightful book on marital collapse, The Children of Divorce, Andrew Root offers that divorce affects our sense of being in the world:
It is my belief that our humanity (and very being) is upheld in community. For each of us, the most significant and core of these communities is the one made up of a biological mother and father. Without their community, there would be no child. So when that community is destroyed, it is a threat to the child’s being. Divorce, therefore, should be seen as not just the split of a social unity, but the break of the community in which the child’s identity rests. Divorce is much more than a psychological or sociological reality. It is about something deeper than economic advantage, psychological stability, or social capital. Divorce is a threat to a child’s very ontology, to his or her very being.
Scripture says that God hates divorce. It’s probably because marriage is intended to reflect the fidelity and self-giving unity of the Trinity, as well as the faithfulness of Christ to His church. When the marital covenant is fractured, it is the human equivalent of the dismantling of the Trinity. The only solution to this sort of collapse? Divine grace. It’s the truth that comes to my mind over and over as I watch relationships (both on-screen and off) struggle and splinter. The infinite and powerful grace of God is the only hope we have as broken people to have any sort of healthy marriage covenant. That’s good news, by the way. It means that there is always hope because God’s grace is sufficient, no matter how splintered the glass becomes.
Maybe this is you. Maybe you’ve experienced the devastation of separation or divorce, whether as the married couple or the child. The God of the universe knows and cares and loves and heals. He invites us into faithful relationship and offers us grace. Grace doesn’t mean the consequences or pain of separation magically disappears. It doesn’t mean that He ignores sin (in fact, grace often means God will lovingly point out our sin so that we might be drawn into the light of truth). This grace simply means the healing and guiding strength of the presence of a good Father who holds our hand and walks with us through the suffering.
A Separation is a masterpiece of a film and one of the best examinations of the consequences of marital disintegration. It’s so authentic and affecting, it’s not something I want to experience again any time soon.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1832382/