You may have heard that the Iranian film A Separation is a masterpiece. You have heard correctly. Some world court needs to make it a crime for this film not to be nominated for Best Picture. (I know it is nominated in the Best Foreign Film ghetto, but can we acknowledge that often the Best Picture of a given year is not in English?)
Like the Best Picture-nominated The Descendants, A Separation is a family drama played out against the background of a broken marriage. But A Separation makes The Descendants look like a clumsy student film. Husband and wife Nader and Simin are getting a divorce. Simin wants to take their 11-year-old daughter outside the country. (Why, she refuses to say. A sly political statement from the filmmaker?)
Nader’s aged father suffers from Alzheimers and cannot be left alone. With his wife out of the house, Nader hires a poor and highly-observant Muslim woman named Razieh to care for his dad. Razieh finds the duties a challenge to both religious observance — is it a sin to undress a man who is not a family member? — and her own stamina — she has a 4-year-old daughter and is expecting another. Pay close attention at the beginning of the story, because every detail returns as the movie turns into a courtroom drama that will threaten to destroy the lives of each character in turn.
The characters are so perfectly acted and the script, by Asghar Farhadi, who also directs, is so skillfully constructed, that a series of slight misunderstandings between Razieh and Nader build believably to scenes of explosive dramatic force and heartbreaking revelations.
As ‘foreign’ as some of the elements of Iranian society in the film may seem, the story here is universal. The tragedy and the comedy of the tale lies in the deep understanding human nature. Every character reacts just as a real person would in the same circumstances. Liela Hatami (as Simin) and Peyman Moadi (as Nader) suggest layers and layers beneath the surface. Indeed, the entire cast, right down to the little girl who plays the four-year-old daughter, feel more like real people captured in a documentary never actors.
The ‘dirty’ framing of the camerawork reminded me of the social realist style employed by Zhang Yimou in The Story of Qiu Ju, which is my favorite example of the form. The camera is often hand-held, but the cameraman doesn’t move. He just reframes, using obstacles in the foreground to cloud the picture, giving it a rough, confident feel that is one level more composed than a run-and-gun documentary.
The biggest stylistic flourish is at the beginning and the end, where the audience is put in the point of view of the judge. And how are we to judge this separation? The filmmakers are generous enough to leave the final sentence to the audience. I have my own personal answer. I believe the daughter will stay with the father, still hoping to bring the parents back together. Of course, as is often the case in real life, there is no right answer.