Modern Iranian cinema tends to reflect the climate that's opposed to its existence. The past year has seen the apex of that trend: Two Cannes Film Festival premieres, Mohammad Rasoulof's "Good Bye" and Jafar Panahi's "This is Not a Film" focused on open-minded Iranians complaining about their oppressive society and seeking an escape. Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" inhabits the same concerns, but its drama — which unfolds with brilliant naturalism — culls from universal frustrations.
Farhadi ("About Elly") delicately examines what it means for a secular-minded couple to live in a world more complicated than the rules established to control it. Iran's fascist government provides a supreme expression of the tension between individual needs and legal barriers, but the whole movie revolves around a pair of relationships and their apolitical, entirely interpersonal drama. The moody Nader (Payman Moadi) refuses to leave Iran with his wife Simin (Leila Hatami), who wants to find a better place to raise their adolescent child (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter). Nader's ailing father suffers from Alzheimer's and he won't leave the dying man's side. "He's not my excuse," Nader tells Simin, as she brandishes visas in a frantic attempt to convince him they should go. "He's the reason."
That's the essence for every main character in "A Separation": Everyone has an excuse for their behavior and struggles to pass it off as inarguable fact. Simin gives up on convincing her husband to leave with her and decides the best solution is a divorce — but the court disagrees and fails to grant her request. In search of an immediate solution, she moves out and heads to her parents' house, another temporary fix that goes nowhere. Meanwhile, Nader hires a religious maid named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father, only to find matters further complicated when she quits after a single day.
The dead ends continue to percolate and, about 45 minutes into this mesmerizing two-hour chronicle, they implode. Razieh attempts to pass the gig to her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) and requests that Nader play along by hiring him without letting on that Razieh worked there first, since she never asked his permission in accordance with tradition. Nader plays along, but the alliance is short-lived: Hodjat winds up in jail and Razieh begrudgingly returns to the job. After accusing Razieh of stealing money and neglecting his father's care, Nader throws the pregnant woman out, then faces Hodjat's rage when the couple returns claiming that Nader caused Razieh to have a miscarriage when he pushed her out the door.
The matter becomes an issue a judge's dissection: If Nader knew about Razieh's pregnancy, he's clearly guilty of a crime; then again, Razieh or her husband might be manipulating information to gain some financial award for her struggling family.
But the reality is that neither side has provided an entirely fluid version of events, and since both Nader and Razieh have withheld knowledge of the events in front of the judge and in conversation with their spouses, there's no precise form of justice that could resolve their conflict. Farhadi allows this dense pile-up of details to glide along on the basis of the confusion it routinely creates.
Farhadi cleverly dilutes the point of view by shifting between the two couples and unfurling new information that changes our own allegiances as well as those of the exasperated judge. In fact, it's that judge's POV that opens the movie, with a camera angle that sits still for nearly five minutes. It's not an announcement of any ambitious formalism (the movie has a fairly straightforward arc); it confronts the idea of subjective perspective before diving into labyrinthine twists. By the end, Farhadi's true focus is the flawed capacity for any law — any form of cold rationality, period — to address the slippery nature of human affairs. It's a frantic microcosm of life itself.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics nabbed "A Separation" after it received top honors and acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in February. It has since been well-received on the fall festival circuit ahead of its limited release this Friday, when it should provide ideal counter-programming for the holiday season and do solid business fueled by positive reviews. It has has significant leverage in the Oscar pool for Best Foreign Language Film.