When Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's suspenseful, high-stakes domestic drama A Separation won Best Foreign Language Film at Sunday night's Academy Awards, it was perhaps a major moment for his country's filmmaking scene. But, in truth, Iran has been a cinema hotbed for the past couple of decades even without Oscar recognition, with major filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), and especially the since-jailed Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Offside) all penetrating the U.S. art-house scene. A Separation shouldn't be considered apart from those films, but it's triumph enough that it belongs in the same company.
A courtroom drama of sorts, much of A Separation plays out as tense disputes in claustrophobic rooms. First is middle-class couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) — note the television and shelves full of books in their third-floor apartment. Simin has obtained permission to move the family abroad, something she thinks will benefit the couple's 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter).
"So the children in this country don't have a future?" the unseen official asks. "I'd rather she didn't grow up in these circumstances," Simin responds, diplomatically.
But Nader refuses because he feels obligated to stay and care for his Alzheimer's-stricken father, and Simin's visa is about to expire. In order to leave without him, Simin must secure a divorce. This opening scene is urgently shot, with Hatami and Moadi speaking directly into the camera, putting the audience in the arbiter's seat. "Your problem is small problem," the judge declares, denying Simin's petition.
But this outcome ultimately results in subsequent judicial hearings, which are criminal in nature and haphazard by American standards of jurisprudence, as a one-man judge/jury/prosecutor sorts through conflicting charges hurled between Nader and Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout young mother whom he'd hired to care for his father during the day. Razieh is keeping the job a secret from her resentful, unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini).
In A Separation, understandable, at times seemingly minor decisions yield unintended consequences. And everyone has defensible reasons for their actions. Further, everything is complicated by a restrictive, fundamentalist culture — on her first day on the job, Razieh calls a hotline to obtain religious permission to change Nader's father after he soils himself — and Farhadi subtly but nonjudgmentally shows how class differences between the couples line up with their adherence to religious tradition.
As these couples find themselves in battle, their daughters — less confined by their ascribed social, religious, financial, and family roles — seem to see the situations most clearly. Farhadi's busy naturalism is so subtly orchestrated the film seems to simply be happening, and a crucial, complex portrait of modern Iran emerges with the illusion of accident.
Opening Friday, March 2nd
Studio on the Square