Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi in a scene from "A Separation." / Habib Majidi/Filmiran International Company
Four stars (out of four)
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Four stars (out of four)
"A Separation" is a great movie, a look inside a world so foreign that it might as well be another planet, yet so universal that its observations are painfully familiar to anyone, anywhere.
Asghar Farhadi's film is set in contemporary Tehran; the cast features no one likely known to American audiences; and the language spoken throughout is Persian. Do not let any of this dissuade you. Farhadi, who wrote and directs, tells a captivating, heartbreaking and frustrating story that resonates in any setting, in any language. It is a family drama and a whodunit, with both aspects of the story told equally well.
At the beginning of the film, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) stare directly into the camera, which is a surrogate for an unseen divorce-court judge. Simin is explaining that she wants to leave Iran so their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) will have more opportunities for a better life. Just what does that mean? the judge asks; Simin doesn't answer, looking away, but it is not hard to deduce what she means: She wants her daughter raised in a more open society, where women are treated more equally.
Nader is fine with all that, but he doesn't want to leave Iran because he must care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer's, and won't abandon him. Neither he nor Simin really wants a divorce; Simin just sees it as the only way to give Termeh a better life. But the judge denies the divorce, so the couple agree to separate. Simin will live with her mother, while Termeh will stay with Nader and his father. Perhaps, Termeh reasons, her mother will return eventually.
Nader must hire a caregiver because his father can't take care of himself and will wander outside if left alone. So he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim, who must make a 2 1/2 -hour commute to get to his apartment, bring along her young daughter and keep her work secret from her hotheaded husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). He, too, is devout, and would never allow his wife to work in the home of a man without another woman present. The work is physically difficult and morally taxing for Razieh, who at one point calls a sort of religious hotline to find out whether it is OK for her to clean and change the old man, who has wet his pants.
Razieh hopes to turn her duties over to Hodjat, but complications arise, so she keeps coming for a few days. The couple are desperate for money, and someone needs to do the job. But one day Nader comes home early and his father is alone, unconscious on the floor, his hand tied to the bed. Razieh and her daughter are nowhere to be found. Nader revives his father, but when Razieh returns, Nader and she have a disagreement, which will eventually lead to a murder charge (though not in a way you might expect). You realize, as all of the principals appear before a weary judge — who seems to want to just get on to the next case — that Farhadi has been peppering the film with clues along the way.
None of this — none of it — is handled in a heavy-handed way. While Iranian customs and practices may be foreign to a Western audience, the dilemmas and feelings are not. Every character in this film is relatable in some way. Though a Western audience's inclination may be to side with Nader and Simin, Farhadi brilliantly leads us to understanding where Razieh, and even Hodjat, is coming from, as well. That and the mystery he builds bit by bit, combine for manipulation of the best kind. The search for the truth is messy, as it would necessarily be, even without the added roadblocks Iranian society throws up along the way.
The acting is brilliant — Moadi and Hatami are especially good — and the direction masterful. "A Separation" won the Academy Award for best foreign film and was nominated for best original screenplay; a best-picture nod wouldn't have been a bad selection, either. Its appeal reaches beyond borders and preconceived notions of a society most of us are unfamiliar with, proving that people are people and that the truth is often hard to come by, no matter where you are.