A divorce hearing triggers disastrous events involving economic and religious, as well as marital, divides in “A Separation,” writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s wholly Iranian and rivetingly human Oscar contender.
Part domestic drama and part whodunit, the film immerses viewers in the complicated dynamics of a few flawed but decent people. In so doing, it offers a gripping story and satisfying challenges that let filmgoers play detective.
Among Iranian filmmakers, Farhadi (“About Elly”) is lesser known on these shores than Abbas Kiarostami or the jailed-on-propaganda-charges Jafar Panahi, but this regime-approved yet hard-hitting film should change that.
Picture a mix of Iranian realism, Italian neorealism, Bergman-esque marital drama and Sidney Lumet- style crime-and social-issue-themed vital storytelling. Then be surprised by the fresh plot that unfolds, and be rapt by its undercurrents.
It begins with a secular couple speaking to a judge. Simin (Leila Hatami) seeks a divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Moadi). She wants the couple and preteen daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to move abroad so Termeh’s future will be brighter.
Nader, citing the needs of his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s, won’t leave Iran. Deeming the couple’s problem “small,” the judge denies the divorce request. Simin moves into her parents’ home.
Simin’s absence brings aboard Razieh (Sareh Bayat), hired by Nader to care for his father. Razieh — who is young, poor, and devout — is uncomfortable, for religious reasons, with having to undress and wash the incontinent old man. She also worries about her volatile unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). She hasn’t told him about the job.
Things turn calamitous after an unfortunate incident causes Nader to accuse Razieh of mistreating his father. The two argue, an accident happens, and perhaps because of this, or perhaps for other reasons, serious consequences, then legal charges, occur.
The proceedings feature conflicting versions of events — accounts reflecting a snarl of pride, anger, shame, greed and conscience, along with class, gender and religious-versus-secular chasms. Slowly, new pieces of information emerge, enabling the viewer to piece things together and determine culpability.
In less talented hands, it would total a mediocre melodrama in Persian.
But Farhadi is a skilled storyteller, a keen social commentator and an affecting human-nature observer, and he’s made an emotionally truthful, dramatically captivating and beautifully textured film. He keeps viewers’ sympathies shifting stirringly among the characters and fills the movie with nugget moments.
At one point, Razieh phones a religious authority to inquire whether washing the old man’s unclothed body constitutes a sin. At another, 11-year-old Termeh and Razieh’s 5-year-old daughter, Somayeh, exchange glances, revealing a simpatico knowingness as their parents spar.
In tune with Farhadi’s direction, the actors give their characters substantial dimension, with Bayat and Moadi particularly fine.
Starring Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Running time 2 hours 3 minutes