Moviegoing audiences might be reluctant to venture into the January cold to go see a subtitled domestic drama set in Tehran with no music score, but, rest assured, "A Separation" is no grueling work of exotic miserablism. Director Asghar Farhadi has described the film as "a detective story without any detectives," and that's as apt a description of the flick as you're likely to find. "A Separation" is a fascinatingly complex film told with the urgency of a Hollywood thriller. There have been few movies I've seen this past year that were more riveting, literally edge-of-your-seat riveting, than this one.
The film opens with a bourgeois couple, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), discussing the dissolution of their marriage with an off-screen undefined authority figure. Simin wants a divorce so that she can make a life abroad with her 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, while her husband wants to stay put, in part because his aging father is suffering from Alzheimer's. It's the sort of prosaic marital problem that could be relatively quickly resolved in the West, but not so in modern Iran. The judge, or whoever he is, denies Simin's petition, deeming it a "small problem."
Simin moves in with her parents, leaving Termeh with Nader. Without his wife, Nader needs a caretaker for his father. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a desperate yet devout working-class woman dressed in a full chador who must tend to her young daughter as she looks after the incontinent old man who has an unfortunate habit of wandering out into the streets. Oh, and Razieh is several months pregnant, a fact that is disguised by her traditional chador. When Nader returns home to discover his father unconscious and tied to the bed with Razieh missing in action, he becomes enraged. When she returns, Nader fires her, accusing her of not only mistreatment but also of theft, a charge she strenuously denied. A scuffle ensues, which breaks numerous Iranian cultural taboos and lands Razieh in the hospital. What precisely happened, however, is unclear to everyone, including the viewer.
Nader soon finds himself facing a charge that could land him in jail for a long time -- as does Razieh, for her negligence. The second half of the movie becomes essentially a police procedural. Yet there are no grand courtrooms in this movie. The accused and the accusers shout and point fingers over the desk of a harried judge in a cramped office. Innocent people, including Termeh, are dragged into court to give false testimony. Razieh's unemployed, ill-tempered husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), starts threatening people with violence. The "separation" in the title starts to take on layers of meaning. The gulf between the educated, worldly Nader and Simin and the traditional, debt-ridden Hodjat and Razieh is positively yawning, as is the gap between the intransigent, prideful men of this tale and the women, who are in turns subversive and recalcitrant in their own ways.
The real brilliance of the movie is that everyone, even hothead Hodjat, is sympathetic and understandable. Yet when put in some very dire situations, everyone cuts ethical corners. Farhadi doesn't judge any of his characters, but he doesn't let any of them off the hook, either. The movie is a portrait of a culture struggling with growing fissures of class, sex, and religion, and a government unwilling or unable to bridge them.
Given the virtually unanimous critical praise for this flick, watch for it winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. If it does, it will, in all likelihood, be a lock for the Oscar.
"A Separation" at the tale end of 2011 in New York and will be making its way around the art house circuit in the coming months.