[EDITOR'S NOTE: The end is rapidly approaching and Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is down to the category for Documentary Shorts. She has very nearly watched every single film nominated for an Oscar this year. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
A Separation opens with an argument in front of a judge. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants a divorce from Nader (Peyman Maadi), which he will grant, albeit reluctantly, and custody of their sixth-grade daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, writer/director Asghar Farhadi's daughter), which he won't. Simin wants to take Termeh out of Iran (she doesn't say why, but we're to assume the reason is…Iran), but Nader won't leave his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer's and needs constant care. Simin doesn't really want to divorce Nader, we sense, but when the bluff is called, she doesn't blink, and moves to her mother's house; Termeh, invited to go with her, elects to stay with her father.
But the two of them can't care for Nader's father during the day, and with Simin gone, Nader hires a day nurse — the devout, pregnant Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who commutes two hours each way with her four-year-old daughter. On her first day, the patient soils himself, and Razieh must consult with religious authorities to see if it's a sin for her to clean him. The father has a tendency to wander away barefoot to the newsstand; at one point, Razieh has to venture across a busy city street to retrieve him. She tries to quit and substitute her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini, particularly outstanding), in her place, but that doesn't work out, so she comes back. That afternoon, Nader comes home to find his father on the floor beside his bed, barely breathing and lashed to the bedpost with a scarf restraint.
So Razieh is either a criminal or a moron, right? Unless she isn't, and that explanation takes its time to come out. First, accusations of stealing have to fly, Razieh has to refuse to leave Nader's apartment under a cloud, Nader has to make her go, and another incident has to compound the first, and so on, and so on. Someone is shoved, or thrown, or merely ordered to leave, and the consequence is Nader's fault, or his father's "fault," or Hodjat's, or no one's. A complaint is filed, and then a cross-complaint. The audience picks a side, then switches, then switches back as witnesses are called and admissions are made. These stubborn, brave, annoying, complicated, recognizable characters and the thoughtful, unaffected performances behind them (even little Kimia Hosseini as Somayeh, Razieh's daughter, is fantastic) combine with a naturalistic dialogue style to make A Separation feel like a documentary. The arguments overlap, repeat, in such an authentic way, sometimes Catskills-y, sometimes tiresome, and in doing so, they give you time to come around to points of view.
I'd expected to respect this movie; instead, I loved it. I loved the ending — Simin and Nader on either side of a busy doorway, not speaking. I loved the family's little jokes about Nader's father at the foosball table ("he's the manager"). I loved how Razieh reminded me, in some shots, of the worried-moon faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and in others of Madeline's Miss Clavel. It has texture.
Best Foreign Language is a strong category this year. I at least liked all the nominees, and three of them are wonderful. A Separation will win, and should.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.