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A Separation: movie review

The superb Iranian film 'A Separation' takes a disagreement between a husband and wife and builds it to a complex tragedy that wraps in religion and class.

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Peyman Moadi as Nader and Sarina Farhadi as Termeh.

Sony Pictures Classics

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In these days of machine-tooled movies with machine-tooled characters it can’t be stated often enough that, when it comes to matters of the heart, simplest is often best. It's a lesson Hollywood has lost, but it crops up occasionally in movies from abroad and never more triumphantly than in “A Separation.” I think this Iranian movie by the writer-director Asghar Farhadi is the best film of the year.

The storyline is a prime example of how an artist can widen a small-scale domestic situation into an entire microcosm of society. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave her husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), a middle-class bank employee, because he won’t go along with her desire to emigrate in search of better opportunities for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter). Nader feels obligated to stay with his aged father (Ali-Asghar-Shahbazi), who lives with them and has dementia, but we sense that there is also more to it. Even though he is comparatively secular and bourgeois by Iranian standards, he still partakes of the prevailing patriarchy. Prideful, he wants to call the shots.

With Simin living with her mother while Termeh stays behind with Nader, he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout, chador-clad Muslim woman with a 4-year-old daughter, to look after his father. Razieh has not dared tell her hothead, out-of-work husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) about her job; she also has not told Nader – or did she? – that she is pregnant. When Nader and Razieh scuffle, she accuses him of causing her subsequent miscarriage. The lawsuit that ensues, in which Nader is charged with murder and both sides grow increasingly vehement, plays out as a tragedy in which religion and the class system is as much on trial as the protagonists.

Farhadi keeps the story open-ended, so that we, as much as the characters, are unclear about what actually happened. We don’t see the details of the scuffle, nor are we privy to everything that was said between Nader and Razieh. Farhadi isn’t playing games with us. He wants us to recognize that, in the end, no one in this story is culpable; everyone is caught up in a situation spun dangerously out of control.

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