The opening moments of A Separation lay out the story you'd expect to see in a film about a wife who is leaving her husband: Simin (Leila Hatami) and her bank-clerk spouse, Nader (Peyman Moadi), are explaining heatedly to a judge why they want a separation. Or actually, why they don't want it.
She brandishes visas they've been seeking for years — their ticket to a better life outside Iran for their 11-year-old daughter. Alas, by the time the visas arrived, Nader didn't want to leave anymore, unwilling to abandon his father, who has Alzheimer's. So to leave the country, Simin must sue for divorce.
The judge tells Simin her reasons aren't substantial enough. Is Nader an addict? Does he beat her? No, Simin says; he's a decent man. So the judge turns her down.
Now, Simin and Nader are a modern, secular, middle-class couple — Simin independent-minded enough to go and live with her parents rather than simply submitting to her husband's will. Which means Nader must find someone to care for his father while he's at work. When he does, we're introduced to another side of Iranian society.
Razieh, a younger, poorer, very religious woman played by Sareh Bayat, takes the caretaking job without the knowledge of her devout, unemployed husband. Things take a bad turn when Razieh leaves the old man alone, his wrist tied to the bed, to go to the doctor. When Nader and his daughter come home, Grandpapa is unconscious on the floor. In an argument when Razieh gets back from the doctor — she's pregnant under her flowing garments — Nader pushes her out and slams the door, and she falls.
Soon everyone's back in court — this time the well-off secular couple at odds with the poorer fundamentalist one — which has the effect of highlighting not just a separation but a host of economic, religious and gender separations in Iranian society.
It's the rare Hollywood film that attempts anything half so ambitious — and when you consider how heavily censored filmmakers are in Iran, director Asghar Farhadi's accomplishment starts to seem downright astonishing.
A Separation is a beautifully crafted, fascinating film, both as a portrait of modern Iranian society and as a drama involving intensely controlling men and supportive but also assertive women. The director has all of his characters withhold information as they make their cases — at times, directly to the camera — which makes A Separation a constant surprise, a film that captures the drama and suspense of real life as urgently as any picture released this year. (Recommended)