This Iranian film written and directed by Asghar FarhadI is the best movie I’ve seen this year, and perhaps the best I’ve seen in several years. It was selected best film in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, and the New York Film Critics Circle just chose it as best foreign language film of the year. There is so much more in “A Separation” than in most movies, yet it’s all done with seemingly simple camera work, no special effects, no fancy set pieces. Wonderful naturalistic acting provides the searing emotional honesty, and a terrific script moves seamlessly between the intimate and the social, always exploring the ways the two are woven together. It’s an extraordinary achievement.
In its interweaving of the personal and the societal, “A Separation” fits neatly within the tradition of the great European novel. We’re watching the dissolution of a marriage, but we’re seeing the deep divides in a society riven by class, by sex, by education, by religious observance, and more. In spite of these distinctions, all the Iranians in the movie share the experience of being squeezed under the thumb of an authoritarian government.
Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran with her husband Nadar (Peyman Moadi) and young daughter Termeh (Sarina FarhadI, the director‘s daughter). Nadar refuses because he can’t bear to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, in an extraordinarily poignant performance) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Since she can’t convince Nadar to emigrate, Simin asks the state for a divorce, although it’s clear at this point she doesn’t really want one.
We immediately understand how constrained Simin’s choices are: she can’t leave the country without her husband’s permission, so she has to divorce him. She can’t get a divorce without convincing a male government official that she should have one. And even if she gets a divorce, she can’t take her daughter with her unless Nadar agrees. And he doesn’t. Since Simin’s only reason for leaving is to give her daughter more opportunity, there’s no point once Nadar refuses to let the child go. Nadar goes back to his father with Termeh, and Simin moves in with her parents.
So far, we are involved in a subtle domestic drama, which is made more complicated by the strictures of the society where it takes place. But the film suddenly veers when Nadar hires a caretaker (Sareh Bayat) for his father, an uneducated woman whose husband is out of work. After the first day, Razieh expresses reservations about staying on the job. The old man has had an accident, and her religious convictions prevent her from providing personal care for a man, even a very old man with dementia. Economics trumps modesty, however, and after some negotiating, she agrees to stay on.