As the circumstances surrounding a contemporary Iranian divorce case unfold in "A Separation," turning ever darker and more complicated, director-screenwriter Asghar Farhadi puts his audience in an uncomfortable spot.
Clearly he wants us to ask ourselves who is right and who is wrong. But there are no simple answers as each character tries to do the right thing, according to what their Islamic culture and their life circumstances have taught them.
"A Separation," subtitled, just won the foreign-language-film Oscar, atop many other honors. Farhadi also got an original-screenplay nomination.
The fact that, at one point or another, your sympathies may lie with each of the half-dozen main characters is a tribute not only to the superb writing but to an ensemble of amazingly gifted actors, including two children.
Within these characters, an internal struggle between heart and head, emotion and logic, is raging. And nobody is winning.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a loving middle-class couple, moderate Muslims, with a lovely 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's real-life daughter). They decide to move to another country in the belief Termeh will have a better life.
But after 18 months wrangling to get immigration papers, Nader now says he can't leave. His father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has Alzheimer's.
"He doesn't know you!" Simin exclaims before a divorce judge. "But I know him!" Nader replies. And both are right.
Simin and Nader don't want to divorce, but she believes she must leave for her daughter's sake. She moves in with her parents temporarily, until she can persuade Termeh to come with her. Termeh stays with Dad and Grandpa.
Since Simin is gone, Nader must find a caregiver for his father. Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim, desperately needs the job because her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), has long been out of work.
Hodjat, who has a temper, would never allow her to work in a home where the wife is not present. And is it a sin to change the old man's garments when he soils himself? But they need the money. She's expecting a child.
Caught in the middle are Hodjat and Razieh's little girl, whom Razieh brings with her while on the job; and Nader and Simin's daughter, who doesn't want her parents to divorce. They don't understand the choices these adults are making.
And nobody has all the pieces of the truth. Internal conflict turns to external confrontation — and legal action — as tensions escalate and secrets come out.
Farhadi masterfully weaves the plot threads into a Gordian knot. He has no bone to pick with Islam and his movie gives the West a glimpse of ordinary Iranian life. While issues imbedded in the culture reflect religious belief, there's a universality at play here in each stripe of human struggle on display.
I'll be thinking about this one for days, if not weeks.
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