The first Iranian film to win an Academy Award — Best Foreign Language Film, in case you missed writer-director Asghar Farhadi's stirring speech Sunday night — the domestic drama A Separation is a story of dilemmas within dilemmas, of moral, legal, cultural and religious quandaries that only spawn more quandaries, like an infinite set of Russian matryoshka dolls. It will not spoil anything to tell you that A Separation begins and ends with questions for which there is no satisfying answer — the source of the movie's insight into human nature, as well as its steadily mounting suspense.
In the opening scene, a couple faces an off-screen arbitrator arguing about a possible divorce. They face the camera directly, side by side, making their appeal to us simultaneously — a position of judgment the viewer will maintain for the entire film. Simin (Leila Hatami), whose brilliant red hair peeks from beneath her head scarf, wants to legally separate from her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) so that she may leave the country with their 11-year-old daughter Termah. The girl is played by Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter — a measure of the movie's stakes.
Nader refuses to leave, insisting he must stay and care for his dementia-riddled father. We sense that neither truly wants the divorce: Nader wants his wife and daughter to stay in Iran, while Simin says that if Nader would leave with them, she would drop her claim. But without a divorce or her husband's permission, Simin can't leave the country with Termah — and he will grant neither. Neither side is demonized: Farhadi seems to have taken Jean Renoir's dictum "Everyone has his reasons" to heart.
That only makes the conflicts that follow, however, messier and more volatile. After Simin moves out, Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father. Razieh, who is pregnant and brings her daughter to work with her, embodies the movie's social arithmetic: Add just one person, and the opportunities for misunderstanding and clashing motivations multiply exponentially. That's even before factoring in her husband, who is unemployed, deeply in debt, does not know she has taken such a job — and would not approve.
It's best for you to experience on your own the distressing ordeal that follows. Farhadi's brilliantly constructed screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and one of its greatest achievements is avoiding cheap manipulation while turning the universal headaches of everyday living — marital problems, aging parents, household expenses — into minefields of explosive hazard. Farhadi reveals only the information necessary to move things forward: I won't compromise that by further summarizing the plot, except to say that soon we're back in court; the stakes are now life or death; and the perspectives on what's true — and what's right or wrong, a different matter entirely — have more than doubled.
And yet if the myriad conflicts within A Separation seem inevitable, it's not because these characters are being passively pulled into them. On the contrary, Farhadi seems to have balanced the culpability of each on a judicial scale, leaving viewers to portion out their empathy accordingly. He neither condemns nor pardons, and so we have trouble doing so ourselves. Disorienting as that may be — it's much easier to navigate a film buttressed by absolutes — it should not be mistaken for moral relativism. A Separation doesn't abdicate the idea of an identifiable right and wrong, but it does submit that when humans are involved — and not, say, comic book heroes and villains — sussing out which is which can be more challenging.
In a country prone to absolutes — and Levitican punishments for those who stray — such a proposal may well be seen as an act of defiance. But while the stifling, dictatorial context in which the film exists is not ignored completely — Simin tells the magistrate she doesn't want her daughter to "grow up under these circumstances" — the entrenched patriarchy and class hierarchy affect the characters less conspicuously than Western viewers might expect. Indeed, just making a film in Iran is often a political act: See Jafar Panahi defy the terms of his six-year jail sentence and 20-year ban on film work in his self-shot documentary This is Not a Film, screening at the Belcourt next month. But could it be that a story of middle-class Iranians embroiled in marital strife and cascading moral and legal conflicts will do more to unite Western viewers with the plight of everyday Iranians — by universalizing their experience — than an overtly political message drama?
There are plenty of reasons to praise A Separation. Its actors give expertly constrained performances, so firmly convinced of their character's point of view that you wonder if they avoided reading anyone else's lines. And as inconspicuously revealing as his dialogue is, Farhadi's shot selection — particularly at the beginning and in the devastating last shot — is often expressive enough to remove the need for subtitles. But A Separation stands out most for depicting so forcefully our predicament as humans — that each of us contains the capacity for rational behavior and the propensity for irrational self-interest, but rarely the ability to judge for ourselves which is which.