In a spirit of emancipation from hostility between their respective governments, the Oscar for “A Separation” becomes a goodwill gesture from citizens of America to citizens of Iran. As such it is well deserved. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s exceptional film rewards our curiosity to understand what Iranian life really is like. His answer is frank but also invitingly coy: It is like life.
We begin within a divorce-court hearing, from the judge’s point of view. Middle-class husband and wife Nader and Simin (Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami) sit before us: She wants a freer life for their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and so has planned the family’s departure from Iran, but he won’t leave now that his father’s Alzheimer’s has advanced, and he wants Termeh to stay as well.
“Your problem is a small problem,” says the judge. We sense an intention of irony here, and anticipate problem enlargement. Eventually Simin moves out of the house but not out of the country. That leaves Nader needing help with the care of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), so he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devoutly religious woman of lower social standing and with domestic difficulties of her own.
Razieh has a temperamental husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a very young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), and another child on the way. Before long she also has a falling out with Nader, an ambiguous emotional conflict which prompts more judicial proceedings and escalates into a riveting ensemble examination of honor, pride, truthfulness, and falsity. Maybe not since Kieslowski has a filmmaker gotten so much juice from open-ended courtroom drama.
Plot-wise, “A Separation” might seem at first faintly play-like or schematic. (It certainly and very refreshingly does not seem like the product of a Hollywood-drenched imagination.) But plot, Farhadi knows, need not always be as it seems. People are his priority, in this case people pushed by everyday frustrations, and by each other, to their breaking points. Fundamentally plot is the consequence of human behavior, and these people behave as people do: badly sometimes. Their conflict occurs, we notice, within a mannerly society whose visible self-control appears simultaneously repressive and civilizing. The simultaneity is what matters.
Allowing only an organic symbology of human aggravations, like trouble zipping up a suitcase, Farhadi avoids explicitly cinematic distractions. The camerawork and cutting are just so agile as to go graciously unnoticed. The performances, so effortlessly enlaced, are independent marvels of subtle clarity. These people, we notice, aren’t just movie characters; they’re souls. And so their simplest gestures — a spontaneous peck on the demented father’s cheek, an anguished glance passed between the daughters — convey great complexity. The film is not strenuous, but it feels like a workout. None of the feeling is cheap.
So much wrenching strife between Nader and Simin, and between him and Razieh, portends a tough future for the watchful Termeh, but we sense that Farhadi won’t let her down. (For starters, Sarina Farhadi is the filmmaker’s own daughter.) It’s a generous assurance — not to mention a fine use of the movie medium. Nations or at least families deserve to hope that within even the biggest possible problem, solution somewhere lurks.