A couple of weeks ago I was staying with some Iranian friends. After supper we watched an Iranian film, A Separation, which is being nominated for two 2012 Academy Awards – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. It is a gripping tale of an upper-middle class couple in Tehran divorcing because the wife wants to leave Iran to provide a better life for their young daughter while the husband wants to remain and care for his father who has severe Alzheimer’s. With the wife having left their apartment the husband hires a woman to care for his father while he is at work. However, the demands of caring for him prove too much for this woman and the husband comes home to find his father almost dead. He fires her and in the ensuing commotion pushes her out the door. She had been pregnant and suffers a miscarriage and an enveloping drama unfolds as he is charged with murder. Truth, honesty, justice and mercy, in relationships that rupture like a fracturing windshield, all play out in a very compelling drama.
Morals & Values Explored in A Separation
What I found fascinating is that even though the cultural/religious backdrop in the film (shia Islam) is very different than my western background these themes are easily understood and I resonate with them. I am gripped in a key moment when the daughter asks her father if he is telling the truth when he says (in court) he did not know that the hired woman was pregnant when he pushed her out the door (the chador dress hides the pregnant figure). The father squirms as he addresses his daughter’s questioning regarding his honesty. And we realize that indeed the father had known the woman was pregnant and thus was lying when in court he testified that he did not know about her pregnant state. But the cost of admitting this would be 1-3 years in Iranian jail. He knew he ought to tell the truth – but the cost was too high. And the daughter herself, in another tense moment, when she is before the judge she also continues the deception by corroborating her father’s story – though by now she knows that this is not true. As she leaves the court she is quietly crying. Her innocence has been lost.
And the mother who initiated the divorce, ostensibly for the sake of their daughter, watches as her daughter, caught in this web, descends into depression and fear as she is stalked by the husband of the woman who had the miscarriage. Taking matters into her own hand she starts a back-channel to pay money to the family suffering the miscarriage. At first the offer is rebuffed, but they themselves are in severe debt and desperately need the money. So the husband and wife (who suffered the miscarriage) accept the offer. And this utilitarian and pragmatic solution seems at first to provide a solution that will satisfy everyone. The couple suffering the miscarriage get money so they can pay their debts. The creditors can get their loans repaid. The daughter (of the divorcing couple) can live life again. At the climax when everyone is gathered to witness and clear all transactions, the husband who is accused of causing the miscarriage slyly (because he wants to defend his honor) requests that the woman swear on the Qur’an that in her total conscience she knew he was the cause of the miscarriage. But the woman will not swear because she is not sure (even though she gone along with his accusation in court) that he had caused it. No resolution is found. No one is satisfied.
What is the Basis for Moral Values
We often hear that Right & Wrong are basically invented and overseen by society for its functioning. Now it is indeed true that without morals society cannot function. But it does not necessarily follow from this that society is the source or cause of morals. What is intriguing in this film is that at the end it would be much more to society’s better functioning to have had the woman simply swear (and thus lie) that it was the man pushing her that caused the miscarriage. Her husband, his creditors, the family who was accused would all have benefited and society’s better functioning would have been lubricated. But her sense of Truth would not let her.
It is because the moral choices are so poignant and precisely because they go beyond society’s need to function that they are so compelling and draw everyone into it – even those of us from very different societies. We can feel them ourselves. To me this is a hint that there is a deeper basis for morals – that there is an objective Right & Wrong. In Session Two I wanted to get us to come to grips with a couple of observations that we easily miss. First, morals are so congruent across vastly different cultures that it speaks to something deeper than simply society/culture/religion being the cause behind it. I surveyed ethics of religions across the world and down through time. It speaks to a basis that is built into us in an absolute way – A Moral Law. The film, A Separation, corroborates this by expecting us to be able to enter and feel their moral choices – even as we do not understand their dress, their religion and their customs. Secondly, in Session Two I wanted us to consider that though we sense this Right&Wrong we do not consistently live it, even while we intrinsically expect others around us to do so. I looked at Bertrand Russell’s pointing out the Wrongness of religious people’s treatment of him – even while he argued that there was no real Right &Wrong – as food for thought. A Separation attests to this as we see how the characters expect to receive truth, justice and mercy – but all the while they cannot extend it to others – either those they love in their own family or the strangers at the other end of their legal and moral confrontation. And we find this so natural we barely notice it.
I wrote in introducing Session Two that I first became acquainted with these generalizations through the writings of CS Lewis but held them very tentatively as the data seemed hard to get a handle on. As I continued to consider Right&Wrong through the lense of human life experience I noticed things that made their resonance grow stronger while other hypotheses seemed to follow one another with a restless sense of bewilderment. Since it took me a lot of reflection I simply offer them as thoughts to hold out for your consideration. This film, A Separation, is one such hint for us to consider as it strikes our hearts – that Right&Wrong is objective Truth but that universal human experience demonstrates that we do not live by it. Perhaps this is also one reason it is up for two Oscars.
Here is the trailer for A Separation