Tucked in amongst all the shinier offerings involving punk hackers, boy reporters and equine conscripts, Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" is the finest film of this awards season and one of the best of the year, a domestic drama that in its deliberately restricted focus nevertheless opens up a nuanced, multifaceted view of life in contemporary Iran. The story is that of the breakup of a marriage and the legal entanglement that snarls up in its wake, and in its characters -- a wealthier, educated, progressive family and a conservative, religious one struggling with money issues -- you can see symbols of a changing, fractured country. But they're too vibrant, too generously realized to be mere metaphors -- "A Separation" is an involving, wrenching tale of duty, love, appearances versus actualities and how some differences turn out to be irreconcilable.
At the film's outset, Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are petitioning directly to the camera, standing in for an off-screen judge, for a divorce that neither genuinely wants -- they've recently been awarded hard-to-come-by visas to leave Iran for some unspecified but apparently permanent destination. Simin is anxious to go, not wanting their ten-year-old daughter Termeh to grow up in the current conditions of the country, but Nader refuses to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer's and can no longer function without constant care. Their proposed split is, as the exasperated judge clearly sees, a high stakes marital bluff in which each party is counting on the other to fold rather than break apart their family. It's a distressing gambit, and Termeh, played with heartbreaking solemnity by Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter, is doomed to pay the price if neither of her parents can bring themselves to yield. That each has a point slowly becomes clear over the course of "A Separation," and their disagreement becomes the film's central, unsolvable dilemma -- leave for greater freedoms, abandoning one's cultural and familial ties, or stay and try to hack it out in a place in which restrictions make life a kind of labyrinth to be struggled through.
Simin, to prove her seriousness, moves back to her parents' house, but Termeh chooses to stay with her father, because he needs her and because, she senses, her remaining with him may pull her mother back. But in the meantime Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to clean and to keep an eye on his infirm dad. Unlike the film's central couple, Razieh is deeply religious -- she wears an abaya, and she hasn't told her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) about her new employment in fear that he'll think it unseemly. She's undecided on the appropriateness of it herself -- when the elderly man wets his bed, she calls for clerical counseling as to whether or not it's a sin to clean him -- but they badly need the money, as her spouse is out of work, depressed and deeply in debt.
What leads to Razieh bringing a case against Nader is better left to be discovered on viewing the film, not just for the benefit of how it unfolds but also for how our sympathies are shifted as the dispute plays out. A Separation begins with a courtroom discussion of Nader and Simin's marital schism, but its second half is devoted to a more weighty legal battle that could land someone in jail. Farhadi masterfully revisits the domestic elements of the film's first half, making us reconsider what happened, the characters' motivations and what might make each dissemble and how. No easy villains emerge, but nor do any comfortable solutions -- only a group of fallible, earnest people pursuing what each believes is right, men whose pride threatens to cost them everything, and women whose attempts to cushion or counterbalance them are futile. In its inexhaustible empathy and the ethical impossibilities it explores, "A Separation" has not a little in common with Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," though while the latter's scope spirals outward with expansive messiness, Farhadi's film keeps its scale small and its gaze confined to one household.
Coming in at just under two hours, "A Separation" feels as efficient as a marathon runner, moving at a brisk clip that still finds time for small, eloquent scenes bolstered by universally excellent performances -- Razieh cradling her daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) to her stomach, the little girl smiling delightedly when she hears the baby moving inside; Nader watching Termeh pump gas in his side view mirrors, an expression of transparent tenderness on his face that he covers up when she gets back in the car. Unadorned by any soundtrack, the film also has an intimate, unfussy look mirroring its subject matter -- Mahmoud Kalari, who also served as cinematographer on the likes of Jafar Panahi's "Offside" and Abbas Kiarostami's "The Wind Will Carry Us," shot the film, and established throughout its runtime a quietly consistent motif. Shooting through doorways, framing people in windows, reflects and through barriers, "A Separation" provides a constant visual reminder of the divisions between its characters. The devastating final shot, of a family's world together ending as life bubbles on in the background, suggests that for some, those divisions will never be bridged. [A]