A Separation (****)

Believe the hype, ladies and gentlemen.  Asghar Farhadi’s flawlessly-written and acted domestic drama A Separation really is as amazing as you’ve heard.  The film is a multi-faceted account of one conflict and the snowballing of harrowing consequences that happen as a result, serving as both ingenious character study and urgent social commentary without ever coming off as an Urgent Social Commentary.  It is populated, without exception, with painfully imperfect yet totally relatable human beings with inner motivations that refract and complicate one another, resulting in the all-too-rare type of drama that is not only entirely character-driven, but one that stands as a pinnacle of the form.

Simin, a beautiful and driven woman, faces a seemingly unsolvable dilemma.  She is trying to give her 11 year-old daughter Termeh a better life by leaving Iran for an education in the west, and has Visas in her possession that will expire if she does not act soon.  However, her husband Nader refuses to go with them.  His own father has Alzheimer’s and he cannot leave his father in such poor health.  He rules out simply hiring someone in his stead as he believes that would be dishonorable.  Both of their reasons are entirely justified yet incompatible together, so Simin files for divorce.

This premise is set-up in a courtroom, with each party arguing their case directly to the camera, who is revealed to be a judge, and by extension, us.  “He is a very nice and decent person,” begins Simin of her husband, and really so is she, but both are intractable.  To the judge, their grievances are not serious enough to warrant a divorce.  The couple separates as a result, with Simin moving in with her parents and Termeh staying with her father and afflicted grandfather.  Because of his work situation, Nader has to pay someone to take care of his father (which, it should be noted, was the very thing he wanted to avoid by not traveling abroad), and so hires a meek, deeply religious women named Razieh.  She takes the job despite not getting permission from her temperamental husband Houjat.

Enigmatic conflicts are abundant in A Separation.

I dare not write any more on the film’s plot, as its twists and turns are what make it so engaging, but suffice it to say that it spirals from there into a series of clashes that are never as they seem.  Part of Farhadi’s genius is how he reveals vital plot information and when.  Just when it seems as though he’s stacking the deck for or against a particular character, a new revelation is turned up that completely changes our perspective.  Lies are told, mistakes are made, but amazingly none of them are done with malicious intent.  These people are hurting each other for no other reason than that they all believe they’re doing the right thing.  Which is what holds us so powerfully in its grip; not what happens, but who it’s happening to and why.

This is helped immensely by five of the best film characters of the year, with top-notch performances all around.  If the Academy Awards were based on merit instead of marketing and Anglocentrism, Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat and maybe even Sarina Farhadi would all be locked for acting nominations.  There is not one weak performance in the entire ensemble; the strongest I’ve seen all year.  I can’t even single out a best-in-show performer among Moaadi’s stubborn yet slowly cracking pride, Hatami’s strident progressivism, Hosseini’s dangerous impulsiveness, Bayat’s crushing humility or Sarina Farhadi’s tearful loyalty to her parents.

These fabulous performances succeed brilliantly in allowing the film to expand its gaze into grander implications without ever reducing its characters into archetypes.  Farhadi is very keen on underlining far-reaching contemporary issues within his narrative architecture that are provocative but not judgmental or obtrusive to the main plot, establishing very real social, religious and economic disparities and subsequently collapsing them on each other.  These are pointed observations he is making on the destabilizing effects of a country struggling with modernity and feminism butting heads with long-ingrained traditions of a patriarchal culture.  Frankly, I’m amazed that a country with as many censorship issues as Iran even allowed for something like A Separation to be made, but I’m glad they did.

Leila Hatami is only one of a uniformly magnificent ensemble of actors.

Farhadi’s directorial choices are very spare, but vital to our immersion into the story.  Nader and Simin’s apartment in particular is shrewdly utilized for several shots of frames-within-frames and convoluted sight-lines, matching our own difficulty in discerning the “whole” story.  It is also precisely arranged to keep us on our toes throughout, with each abrupt or unexpected cut an intentional move to provide more of an impactful reveal later on, making this film as well-paced and nail-biting as the best of traditional thrillers.  It’s the kind of filmmaking that is so subtle that one only notices how effective they were in hindsight.

Even better is that all of this is in the service of a film that is completely accessible to any viewer even half-interested in thought-provoking cinema.  This is not an inscrutable art film or a piece of grim social realism (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those), but a gripping human drama with universal ideas.

I simply cannot recommend A Separation enough.  It does not surprise me at all that it is the frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, though if we’re being honest it ought to be a Best Picture nominee as well and have Best Original Screenplay locked up.  For reasons that I cannot understand for the life of me, distributor Sony Pictures Classics is releasing what could very well be this decade’s City of God (that is, a seemingly too-potent foreign film that achieves mainstream popularity on quality alone) at the tail-end of the year in only a tiny handful of theaters in the United States.  Regardless of their inability or unwillingness to sell a true gem of a motion picture properly, I strongly urge anyone who can to see A Separation as soon as possible.  It is one of the very best films of the year.