"A Separation" is totally foreign and achingly familiar. It's a thrilling domestic drama that offers acute insights into human motivations and behavior as well as a compelling look at what goes on behind a particular curtain that almost never gets raised.
The early front-runner for the foreign-language Oscar and a rare triple prize winner at the Berlin International Film Festival (it took home the Golden Bear for best film, plus the actor and actress prizes were split among the male and female cast), this is a movie from Iran unlike any we've seen before. And it's arrived at a time when other Iranian filmmakers, like the more overtly political Jafar Panahi, are being forbidden to work.
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation" is intense, focused and narrative-driven. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock's intricate attention to plot joined to the devastating emotional impact of Ingmar Bergman: The result is so exhilarating, the movie was the first foreign-language film to win the screenplay award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.
Films from Iran can be maddeningly slow, with elusive subject matter and elliptical style. "A Separation" is something completely different.
Its world is that of the sophisticated, well-educated middle-class residents of Tehran, people who have problems and personal situations much like our own. But gradually, bit by bit, like drops turning into a flood, the ordinary gets devastatingly out of hand, and minor misunderstandings, confusions and evasions morph into a slow-motion nightmare that threatens to destroy everything and everyone in its path.
Farhadi, whose four previous films include another Berlin prize winner, 2009's "About Elly," has chosen his title with care. This incisive look at Iranian society reveals, without calling any special attention to it, divisions over class, over religious observance, over political philosophy. But what's so inspired here is his decision to ground them all in the most personal of all separations, that between a husband and wife.
Husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and wife Simin (Leila Hatami) are introduced looking directly at the camera, talking to an unseen judge. Simin has the opportunity to leave Iran, but her husband doesn't want to go, so she is reluctantly suing for divorce.
Simin wants to leave to offer a better life to their 10-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter). Nader wants to stay because of his 80-something father, who has Alzheimer's. "He doesn't even know you're his son," she says in anger, and he snaps back "but I know he's my father."
Frustrated, Simin leaves the family apartment and moves in with her parents. Nader, who is close to his daughter but has a noticeably inflexible side, hopes his wife will be coming back. But in the meantime, he has to hire someone to look after his father during the day.
Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the woman who gets the job, is less well off than her employers and extremely religious. When Nader's father proves to be incontinent and incapable of changing himself, she calls an imam to see if it is permissible for her to help him.
Unable to cope with the situation, Razieh proposes her hot-headed, unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), for the job. But before he can take it, he gets detained for debt, and Razieh must return. Which is where everything starts to go terribly wrong.
One fascination of "A Separation" is its depiction of the day-to-day intricacies of this very particular society, the complications of a country with a definite religious/secular divide and a legal system very different from those in the West.
Filmmaker Farhadi approaches this tricky material with a great deal of deserved confidence. Perhaps because of his extensive background in theater, he is passionate about the importance of rehearsal, and that belief has paid off with splendid performances across the board. It's no accident those awards in Berlin went to all the film's actors, not just the stars.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the way "A Separation's" exquisitely human situations unfold is that the narration allows for as many points of view as there are characters. Everyone is fallible yet everyone feels justified in their own particular grievances, and the film is at pains not to pick sides. The great French director Jean Renoir, who would have loved this film, exactly sums up its situation in one of his most famous phrases: "The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons."