| “A Separation” is a remarkable movie for many reasons, but what stands out most about this Iranian drama is its authenticity, humanity and complex morality. There’s no flashy filmmaking nor gimmickry here, just an astounding piece of pure storytelling: layered, relatable and inherently compelling through its raw power and profoundly insightful truths about human nature.
It begins with a fierce, long single take where Nader (Peyman Moadi) and his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) sit in front of a judge while she requests a divorce. Nader has been a good husband to her, but Simin doesn’t want their adolescent daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) growing up in Iran, demanding they leave the country and give her a better life elsewhere. However, Nader’s elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) suffers from Alzheimer’s and requires constant care, so Nader refuses to leave him. At a standstill, the judge denies the divorce and it immediately becomes evident that there will be no clear right or wrong actions in this film–everyone works in shades of gray.
Simin decides to move into her parents’ home until a resolution is reached, while Termeh continues to stay with Nader. Needing a new caretaker for his father by the next day, Nader hires poor young mom Razieh (Sareh Bayat). Unfortunately, she isn’t quite capable of handling all the responsibility the job requires, especially since she has to take her small daughter (Kimia Hosseini) along with her. She encounters difficulty in the care-taking from the start, and when Nader comes home early one day to find her missing and his father in trouble, a heated conflict arises that results in a devastating accidental injury.
Following this, matters intensify as Nader struggles to disprove detrimental claims by Razieh and her fiery-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). At this point “A Separation” evolves into a gripping mystery of sorting through both families’ stories to uncover the elusive truth. This somewhat resembles a courtroom thriller, except more intimate and truer-to-life. And as secrets are revealed, the personal beliefs of everyone involved are deconstructed with thought-provoking commentary on universal themes, such as gender roles in society, principle over practicality and assigning blame in the face of guilt.
The refusal to take an easy way out of any of the moral quandaries of the story is, above all, what makes “A Separation” such a fascinating and involving journey. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a tale about everyday people involved in the kind of conflict that could befall anyone, and at all times it feels like part of real life, including the numerous plot twists and shocking surprises. Considering the high levels of intensity the movie reaches, and how from beginning to end it remains stunningly original as well as wholly captivating, Hollywood should take note: low-key realism about personal conflicts can be endlessly more effective than big-budget blockbusters.
More interesting than that is how Farhadi creates something so moving and widely representative of the human spirit under the heavy censorship of Iran. Limited from including many of the provocative elements used in American and European films, Farhadi sticks with the essentials: a great story, strong, realistic characters and devoted actors. In turn, the provocative elements of “A Separation” are the ambiguities in morality and the penetrating emotional turmoil experienced by the characters as well as viewers, who will feel the characters’ pain in full force by the time the credits roll.
While Moadi’s fully committed portrayal of Nader leaves the biggest impression, the entire cast is so mesmerizing and convincing that it’s easy to completely lose yourself in their performances before even reaching the second act. It’s around there that Hatami returns to the narrative, and her coolly assured poise and distant beauty as Simin serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Moadi’s wavering between restraint and vehemence. With each successive scene between them, they leave a deeper impact on viewers, and their final scene at the end will leave you in awe of how powerful the whole experience was
Farhadi constructs a timeless masterpiece with “A Separation,” the kind that moviegoers will be watching 50 years from now and still admiring its lasting power. So if you decide to go see any of the Oscar-winning movies you missed, step out of your regular boundaries and check out this winner of Best Foreign Language Film. No other 2012 Oscar-winning movie, in any category, is a better piece of cinema. It’s a film that examines the human conscious but doesn’t provide any easy answers–just real ones.