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Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

A Separation

Iranian film is a strong Oscar contender

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A Separation, which has already earned three prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival and is a strong contender for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, is an extraordinary film about ordinary life. Neither dull like those British “kitchen sink dramas” nor fatally compromised like a Hollywood problem picture, A Separation is another example of how the art of cinema has flourished under Iran's censorial regime. But unlike many Iranian films, which move at what feels like real time with a minimum of edits, A Separation shows its story from many angles—literally as well as figuratively. The pace is decisive and the cinematography beautifully polished.

The separations in A Separation occur between husband and wife, a woman and her home, a child and her parents and people from each other. Simin (Leila Hatami) reluctantly resolves to divorce her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), for an opportunity to immigrate. Awaiting the court proceedings, she moves back to her mother's place while leaving their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) in Nader's care. They are a middle-class couple in the bustling capital of Tehran, and, aside from Simin's obligatory headscarf, there is much to remind Western audiences of urban professionals anywhere. Their apartment is large and cluttered with the debris of a life with too little time. They are caring for Nader's Alzheimer's-stricken father, an affable old man who remembers little from minute to minute and needs help using the bathroom.

The human problems are universal, but the particular problems of Iran soon come into focus. Simin hires a pious lower-class woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to keep house while Nader is at work. When Nader's father soils himself, Razieh panics and phones an Islamic help line for guidance: Is it a sin for a woman to help a strange man go to the toilet? We don't hear the answer, but apparently it involves Razieh donning latex gloves before handling the old man.

Razieh is a harried woman trying to do her best, which isn't good enough for Nader. They argue. When Nader pushes her out of the door of his apartment, she slips on the stairwell. Later that day she miscarries. Razieh's abusive husband, hot-tempered and dim as a bull in the ring, wants blood. Nader stands charged with the murder of Razieh's unborn child in Iran's justice system, a ramshackle edifice with officers who nevertheless seek to find the truth.

And here is one of the fascinating aspects of A Separation: The truth is difficult to establish when no one is entirely truthful and, as in Hitchcock films, everyone is ultimately guilty of something. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi astutely measures the human capacity for prevarication, selfishness and altruism. Entangling everyone is someone else's misdeed, and there are consequences to every action. A Separation is composed of many small, acute moments, such as Simin's choice of a single CD when she packs her bags and leaves, and Termeh's forlorn face in the window glass, aware that her mother is packing for more than a brief vacation.

All of this unfolds without the aid of syrupy Hollywood music, an absence that allows the natural gravity of the situation, the reality, to stand in sharp, painful relief.