The much-deserving winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture (in a precedent-making move, it was also nominated for Best Screenplay, the first time a foreign film has won a nomination outside the foreign category), A Separation is as far as can be from those facile Hollywood flicks in which not a single character behaves from any recognizable impulse or motivation. Although set in an Iranian culture that is in many ways truly foreign (for one thing, the judiciary system, in which much of this story is set, operates completely differently from anything I have seen; this is no Law & Order), the complex intent and heart of each character is absolutely clear, if at times mysterious.
The story is set around a marital rift—the Separation of the title—but it is in many ways the larger tale of an Iran separated by religion, class and privilege. An upper-middle class couple seek to separate because Simin (the beautiful Leila Hatami), the wife, wishes to leave Iran for better opportunities for their teenaged daughter Termeh (played with moving intelligence by Sarina Farhadi, writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s daughter). Her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) insists on staying in Tehran to care for his aged father, who suffers multiple health problems, including dementia.
Both characters and their motivations are fully sympathetic and diametrically opposed. Stuck at this impasse, Simin goes to live at her parents’ apartment. The family is split, and Termeh chooses to stay with her father and grandfather.
Through a family recommendation, Nader finds a young woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat, who has the face and demeanor of a madonna) to care for his father during the day while he is at work. Being poor, she lives far out in an outlying area and must undergo a two-hour trip each way by public transport to get to Nader’s apartment. She brings her little girl but finds the work physically overwhelming and is also consumed with other worries and concerns (for starters, her husband is in debtor’s prison for bankruptcy).
What follows is a series of bad decisions, each seemingly slight and possibly justified in their moment, that magnifies into debacle. The film opens and ends in the halls of what might loosely be called justice, but it’s nothing like the court system we know. This is also a world whose mores and religious divisions are different from our own, but whose family ties and class struggles are very familiar.
This utterly absorbing film makes us root for every character, particularly the two girls, one young and one on the cusp of adulthood, who see and understand much more than they should. Asghar Farhadi’s amazingly rich screenplay has the density and moral complexity of a Tolstoy novel and the performances of the phenomenal cast only multiply its depth and emotion.
A Separation‘s two hours fly by, but its sensitivity and humanity stay with you.