As A Separation begins, a couple looks to the viewer for answers. No-nonsense middle-aged, middle-class husband Nader (Peyman Maadi) and his elegant wife Simin (Leila Hatami) sit side by side in front of an Iranian court official, explaining their problem. She says she wants to leave Iran to make a better life for their daughter in another country as soon as possible; he says that's what he wants, too, but he can't leave right now because he can't abandon his elderly father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from dementia. Director Asghar Farhadi shoots the scene in one long take from the court official's point of view; you hear his voice, but the bickering, increasingly frustrated and intractable couple is talking to you.
From the outset, again and again, you are asked to judge the situation, evaluate the arguments and those making them, weighing each statement and each action that results. That process never stops as the Oscar-winning A Separation expands into both a grueling family drama and a brilliantly plotted, almost Rashomon-esque mystery, all the more suspenseful because the stakes are so dear and so clearly established. By the final reel, the tension is nearly unbearable. At the end of the scene, the court official sends them away, telling them theirs is "a small problem." If only.
As the title telegraphs, Simin leaves their apartment for her parents', leaving Nader with no one to take care of his father while he's at work and their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's own teenager) is at school. Through Simin, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), the wife of out-of-work Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), to look after his father, a task more physically difficult and morally vexing than the religiously conservative Razieh realizes when she takes the job. Things go a little wrong, and then they go very wrong. Razieh is injured, Nader is blamed, and all parties wind up in yet another small office in front of another court official (Babak Karimi) who tries to determine the truth and the fault.
The problem is that everyone's story contradicts someone else's and yet fails to fully convince on its own. But the viewer has little reason to suspect any particular character is acting out of malice, even the volatile Hodjat. Each is trying to do the right thing as he or she sees it given the (often complicated) situation. Bright and devoted daddy's girl Termeh, in particular, is torn between what she saw and heard, what she would like to believe, and what she fears, and she is asked to make decisions no one of any age would want to make. Thanks to Farhadi's exquisite script and his deft hand with camera and cast, each clue, each artfully exposed new revelation, each plot turn, falls into place like an oiled tumbler as the whole chain of events slowly unlocks. And even then, as the devastating last scene drives home, there are no easy answers.
Farhadi's other films are all but unknown to viewers here, but A Separation announces a rare cinematic talent in every frame. Even simple household scenes illustrate character: Nader is so clueless about the workings of his home that he can't figure out how to turn on the dishwasher; Termeh figures it out by looking for the most worn-looking button on the control panel. The director's use of a hand-held camera—even in stationary shots such as the opening scene—and tight framing add an anxious energy to the film's small rooms and teeming urban spaces, as well as an appealing naturalism (no faux-doc shaky-cam here). His use of windows and mirrors as a visual motif subtly amplifies the thematic motif of things seen but at a remove, refracted, perhaps mistaken.
If you're looking for a furtive sociopolitical allegory smuggled out from a rigid Islamic regime, you may find one if you squint hard enough—Farhadi does prod delicately at the separations between classes and depths of faith. But even with its religious charges and blood money, Iranian law functions little differently in A Separation than any modern legal bureaucracy might anywhere: a complex system tasked with exacting right and wrong in a hopelessly inexact situation. Besides, focusing on the context of Farhadi's tale at the expense of his rich characters, their difficult predicaments, and their all-too-human responses seems ungenerous and narrow. After sitting through this film, that's likely the last thing you will want to be.