Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sarina Farhadi, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Ali-Asghar Shabazi
Rated PG-13 for Mature Thematic Material
"A Separation," the 2011 art house smash, is a film of paradoxes. Deceptively simple yet endlessly complex, foreign yet universal, civil yet criminal, understated yet arresting. It defies easy description and it's not relaxing entertainment. But it is gripping and heartfelt.
Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) have been married for fourteen years, and have an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Farhadi). They are trying to obtain a divorce, but not because they are unhappy with each other. In point of fact, they love each other deeply but are at an impasse in which neither is able to budge. Simin wants to leave Iran, believing that Termeh would have a better future elsewhere. Nader would go with them were it not for his ailing father (Shabazi), who is the final stages of Alzheimer's. Because neither party is guilty of any crime, the judge refuses a divorce. As a result, Simin moves back in with her family.
Unable to care for him during the day, Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to play nurse and housekeeper. She agrees because she needs the money, although her husband does not know what she is doing. One day Nader comes home to find his father on the ground, near dead and with one of his hands bound to the bedpost. Both Razieh and her daughter are gone, as is some of Nader's money. Nader is understandably furious, and a scuffle ensues between him and Razieh. The next thing he knows Razieh has fallen on the stairs. Simin later finds out that Razieh is in the hospital and has lost her unborn child. Razieh's short-tempered husband Hojjat (Hosseini) charges Nader with murder, a sentence that would earn him a prison time of 1.5-3 years.
That's the story anyway, but the beauty of the film is that it is about so much more than that. Watching this film, we get an insider's look at Iranian society and especially its judicial system. There are no lawyers or witness stands; just a judge and witnesses. It functions more like mediation than anything one would find in the U.S. legal system. And the relationship between Nader, Simin and Termeh feels entirely credible. The break-up of a marriage is hard on everyone, especially the kids, and writer/director Asghar Farhadi doesn't pretend that it isn't. He includes little moments that enhance the credibility of their relationships with each other. It may take place in a culture that is very foreign, but the way they communicate and interact is universal.
The acting is exceptional. From top to bottom, there isn't a weak performance. Peyman Moaadi plays a man who claims innocence, but may not believe it. Leila Hatami is wonderful as his would-be ex, who still loves him despite their disagreements. Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter, does an excellent job of playing a pre-teen who is caught in the middle of a complex conflict, one that shows the good, the bad, and the ugly of everyone involved. Sareh Bayat is also very good as the naiive Razieh; given the storyline, one would think that she would be a villain, but that's not the case. She's a deeply religious woman who has been struck by tragedy and wants justice. As her out-of-control husband, Shahab Hosseini adds a level of tension whether he is on or off screen. And Ali-Asghar Shabazi is entirely convincing as a man who has little of his mental faculties left.
"A Separation" is narratively dense; it demands that the viewer pay strict attention (considering the quality of the production, that's not too much to ask). It's also almost entirely dialogue driven, almost to the point where it could have been adapted from a play (it wasn't). Unfortunately, it's also very understated, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it enhances the verisimilitude in a way that a more expressive style could not. On the other, it feels dry and slow-moving.
The editing is occasionally odd and things can get a bit confusing here and there, but nevertheless, this is filmmaking of the highest order.