A Separation (****)

What one learns about a couple of minutes or so in to the extraordinary Iranian film A Separation is that the title cards for the financiers, which appear in silence, are really the calm before the storm.  Our first visual image is that of two angry and emotional people, Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi), pleading to us, the viewer, that a solution to their domestic disagreement must immediately be reached.  We learn that we have the same perspective as a magistrate, with Simin and Nader arguing over Simin’s desire to receive a divorce and Nader adamantly against the idea.

As they make their case, a disjointed voice informs Simin that she has not provided sufficient grounds in making her case and that Nader has successfully blocked her attempts to earn a dissolution.  The magistrate orders signature of a court order and Simin is left with no option but to agree.  Simin then moves in with her parents and leaves Nader and their 11-year old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, daughter of director and screenwriter Asghar Farhadi), to live in the family home, where Nader has agreed to care for his ailing Alzheimer’s-stricken father.

Punctuating this argument is Simin’s desperate desire to leave Iran with her family and start a new life away from the repressive and suffocating political landscape she finds intolerable.  And that simple element to the story speaks volumes as to the boldness, the risk, and the sheer audacity of director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.  How this film got made is one thing to ponder.  How this film was screened in Iran is another.  How Iran viewed and selected this as their country’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is downright baffling.  That it even exists is an extraordinary achievement.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The spectacle of its creation aside, A Separation is also easily one of the best written, directed, and acted films of 2011, a haunting and compelling ode to human interactions and emotional entanglements.  Following Simin and Nader’s marriage separation, other separations, in varying forms, manifest, grow, and become realities. Farhadi’s screenplay opens itself up to an intricate maze of physical and emotional separations which continually make the characters in his film assess and evaluate their lives and the people who exist within it.

Nader soon realizes that he is ill equipped to take care of everything his father needs, while also taking care of Termeh and his responsibilities as a banker.  He then hires Razieh (the exceptional Sareh Bayet), a poor married woman, 4-and-a-half months pregnant, who is forced to bring her 5 year-old daughter to work with her each day.  After a cultural and societal conflict arises from Razieh’s need to assist Nader’s father, she attempts to have her husband, Houjat (Shahab Housseini), step in and work for Nader.  Houjat, however, has his own series of problems and is jailed, forcing Razieh to remain in Nader’s employ.

Leila Hatami and Peyman Maadi in "A Separation"

Systematically, A Separation presents a half-dozen or so characters who are all steamrolling towards conflict and disagreement.  The brilliance of the film rests in how we all can see trouble on the horizon, but the choices made by Asghar Farhadi in telling this emotional and searing story never plays false, stays honest and true to the characters he has created, and never presents a bias against anyone for anything they do.  A Separation is a film so organically committed to the humanity of its subjects that everything which unfolds, the surprises which come especially in a breathtaking final 45 minutes, are as honest and believable as any filmmaker brought to the screen in 2011.  The acting is pure, the situations transcendent of culture and country.  But we are not merely bystanders – we are engaged and immersed and riveted with every word, look, and decision that these characters make.

A Separation accelerates more and more expeditiously and urgently in its second half until everything reaches an unforgettable and thought-provoking conclusion. As expertly accomplished as any movie I have seen in quite some time, Asghar Farhadi’s daring gall in questioning various elements of Iranian culture and society – from the judicial system to health care to the expectations levied upon women and men in a modernized Islamic culture, is as engrossing as it is unbelievable.

A Separation is my #4 selection for the Best Films of 2011 and I simply cannot wait to see it again.  Earmarked as a frontrunner for 2011’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, I sincerely hope that this film finds a wide and far-reaching audience because  A Separation is nothing less than fantastic.