This is a gripping and emotionally fraught Iranian film from last year that is as taut and tightly wound as a thriller, but that deals with societal and familial breakdown on many levels. I'd been led to believe from my usual review-skimming that "A SEPARATION" was simply about an unhappy couple struggling to get divorced in Iran's mullah-ruled justice system, yet that's truly only the opening scene of the film - and it too is wonderful, as is the entire movie. Take the frustration and worry generated by that one scene, and then let it build and fold into multiple bizarre and overlapping prisoner's-dilemma scenarios over two hours, and you've got this outstanding film.
Director Asghar Farhadi has much to say about Iranian society, government, religion and morals, and surprisingly, he is able to say them all quite freely in his film. There are numerous schisms present in the film - between men and women, between moderately comfortable (I won't say rich, but perhaps so by Tehran standards) and poor, between the pious and the presumably secular, between rulers and ruled, and between old and young. These schisms prevent plain truths from being told, and prevent fairly simple matters of love, free movement and earning a living from happening in a natural and "human" manner. The Iran we are asked to look at here, while more advanced and varied than many might imagine, is portrayed as a cluster of lies and injustices that only deepens the many schisms.
The two arguing leads, Nader and Simin, are unable to file for their desired (sort of, we think) divorce because he won't leave the country for America with her, as Nader has his Alzheimers-ridden father to take care of, and Simin won't leave on her own out of love for her 11-year-old daughter, whom we're led to believe wants to stay in Iran with her dad. Nader hires a poor, ultra-religious, chador-wearing, pregnant housekeeper to watch over his elderly, incapacitated father while he's away at work. This does not go so well, to say the least. When Nader physically pushes her out the door in an attempt to fire her for neglect, and she later miscarries her baby and accuses him of killing it, the square wheels of justice start to clunk onward, and the layers of lies and deceipt begin to pile on.
The initial "unneeded" separation of the couple - Simin goes to live at her mom's house in another part of Tehran - is the accusation thrown at this mother for why everything happened as it did, which is patently unfair and true at the same time. Their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, is perhaps the best part of the film - a quiet, watchful presence who is absorbing all sorts of life lessons, good and bad, from her quarreling parents and from her dysfunctional society. Her ability to cry on queue is one of those things expected of great actors and actresses, but which is nonetheless amazing when you see it done so easily on film. Termeh is truly the sole force of good in the film, though even with all of the frustrations and lies elaborated upon in Farhadi's film, it's clear that he wants us to know that there are good, honest people, and perhaps a few functional parts left in Iranian society.
"A Separation" has one of those powerful cliffhanger endings that remains deliberately unresolved, which is I tactic I loved (the film plays on in one's mind with two different outcomes) and my wife disliked (though she loved the film otherwise). It was Iran's entry to last year's Academy Awards, which it won, and it's absolutely one of the most powerful and compelling foreign films of the last year.