*A Separation (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
Kingdoms will fall and seas will boil before a significant portion of American moviegoers will see a subtitled Iranian film like Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation. But shame on critics who make it even harder by suggesting that the film is "about Iranian society," as though its devastating story could only be an anthropological curiosity to Westerners.
The thing about truly great storytelling is that it works first and foremost because it's human. Tolstoy isn't just about Russia, or Ibsen just about Norway, any more than Shakespeare is just about England. Here, Farhadi may be writing within Iranian society, but he's not just writing about it. Through this one narrative, he manages to tackle sprawling notions of power, class, morality and deception in a way that makes a half-dozen characters resonate as some of the most complex dramatic creations you'll see on any screen, in any language.
The titular separation takes place in the opening scene, as Nader Lavasani (Peyman Moadi) and his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), appear before a judge to hear her request for a divorce. No great wrong has been done to Simin; "he is a good, decent person," she says. But she wants to emigrate with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter), while Nader refuses to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who's in the late stages of Alzheimer's.
When they can come to no resolution, Simin moves out, forcing Nader to hire a caretaker — a devoutly religious, pregnant wife and mother named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) — to watch his father during Nader's work hours.
It's a simple setup, but the dynamics that evolve are far from simple. Razieh keeps her employment secret from her unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). Legal disputes erupt into threats of violence, while multiple parties withhold crucial pieces of information to serve their own purposes. When Nader disagrees with a translation Termeh's teacher has provided her for an assignment in Persian, he tells his daughter, "What's wrong is wrong, no matter who says what"— but A Separation soon becomes a clear challenge to that notion.
We see a justice system that seems to treat those in the upper classes differently than it treats a laborer. Nader and Razieh both tell lies they are convinced are necessary, but Razieh's religious scruples have those lies weighing more heavily upon her. And the notion of powerlessness erupts with most heartbreaking effect as we watch both Termeh and Somayeh, Razieh's 4-year-old daughter, become pawns in the tumultuous interactions between their respective parents.
Yet for as many ideas as Farhadi weaves throughout A Separation, there's never a moment when the characters feel like place-holders for a thesis, as opposed to wonderfully flawed humans. Moadi's performance is particularly remarkable, capturing a stubborn man who casually manipulates his daughter even as he convinces himself that his questionable actions are all about family devotion. Farhadi treats his characters with the same fundamental absence of judgment, observing how lack of respect manifests itself in myriad ways.
A Separation ends with a scene that seems not to provide closure; a crucial decision never comes. But in a suspended moment of tension, Farhadi conveys so much about facing a no-win choice while holding on to a rare moment of power. There's nothing particularly Iranian about that. It's simply the culmination of the kind of human story that transcends culture, and subtitles.