Tense, sophisticated, crisply plotted, and narratively complex, A Separation is a tightly structured, exquisitely conceived, and flawlessly acted social drama about a minor domestic incident that ignites a chain of explosive consequences. It is a singular achievement, a scathing social critique, a piece of realist cinema with the pull and coiled power of a top-notch suspense thriller.
The marital relationship between Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) is at a stalemate. She wants to leave Iran to the point of asking for a divorce; he is only willing to release her if she abandons her studious teenage daughter, Termeh. When Nader accuses his new caregiver Razieh of stealing and provokes a tragic accident that may or may not be his responsibility, what follows is an investigation in which everyone has an incentive to lie or distort the facts, and unambiguous truth is nowhere to be found. None of the characters give an inch in tone or actions. It’s an Islamic retelling of Rashomon in the 21st century.
Together and apart, Hatami and Moaadi are magnetic. Hatami, with nothing more than a gesture, lets us see Simin’s intelligence and defiant self-worth. Both actors create those miracles that endow a film with conviction. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi, who deservedly won the Golden Bear at Berlinale and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, chisels a phenomenal screenplay, so finely wrought that the drama seems guided by an invisible hand.
While it’s hugely compelling on an emotional level, it’s also revealing in numerous small and concrete ways what it’s like to live in a contemporary theocracy. It paints a highly specific portrait of the tension, hypocrisy, and internal divisions of Iranian society, yet Farhadi’s essential ingredients – faith, discord, class divisions, male domination – could be found in any country in the world and any time of history. In other words, it’s provides a compelling look at what goes on behind a particular curtain that almost never gets raised, inside a world so alien that it might be another planet, and so universal that its observations are painfully familiar.
Both a seriously complicated film and urbane entertainment, A Separation is a Hitchcockian mystery wrapped inside an enigma, a frantically unpredictable microcosm of life itself. It offers a compassionate understanding of family ties and the way ordinary people respond when they’re forced into a moral quandary, as well as acute insights into human motivations and behaviour. It touches on religious strictures and gender politics in Iran, but it does so with a light hand and not a twitch of condemnation. It’s a more mature film about contemporary life than anything made in the United States in the last two years – although admittedly that’s not setting the bar high.
Deeply intimate and poised on a knife’s edge, A Separation is a trenchant emotional thriller, entirely predicated upon the outcome of bad decisions, that you watch in dread, awe, and amazing aggravation. It’s a deceptive mystery whose clues are laid out so carefully you’ll probably miss them; a dense philosophical fable in which every character is morally compromised; a startling look inside a nation and a culture that very few of us understand beyond insulting media caricatures; and a profoundly humane work with the payoff and far-sighted vision of a great novel.