Some films wear their artistry so lightly they appear simply to be happening, the inner workings of the story guided by an unseen hand. In "A Separation," the stunning drama from Iran and the foreign-language awards contender of the season, the hand belongs to writer-director Asghar Farhadi, making his fifth feature since 2003.
The film is a singular achievement, a piece of realist cinema with the pull of a suspense thriller, given its characters' array of deceits, troubles, burdens and miseries both self-inflicted and society-reinforced. Yet the level of craft, and the ease and rightness of every performance in this tale of divorce and its collateral damage, transforms what might be crushing melodrama into a moral riddle with no correct answer.
"A bitter end is much better than a bitterness without ending," says a divorcing character in Farhadi's film "About Elly" (2009). That line evokes the tensions of "A Separation" as well. The new film's already famous overture presents a woman and a man before an unseen Tehran judge. Simin, the flame-haired teacher played by a tightly controlled yet fabulously expressive Leila Hatami, wants to leave Iran for good with her 10-year-old daughter (played with exquisite naturalness by Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) and, nominally it seems, with her husband, Nader, played by Peyman Moadi. Nader says he cannot; his father, stricken with Alzheimer's, demands his care. Simin has filed the divorce papers in response, taking Nader's unwillingness to leave as a passive-aggressive farewell.
While Simin stays with her mother, Nader lives with their daughter, Termeh, for a couple of weeks. Nader's father acquires a new caretaker (Sareh Bayat), whose fundamentalist hard-line husband (Shahab Hosseini) remains jobless, filling up slowly with rage at his limited options in life. His wife deceives him; caring for a sick, aging man who soils himself is something she'd rather keep to herself than risk her husband's anger, or worse.
I hesitate to reveal much more about Farhadi's narrative, not because it's full of aha! moments or shocking revelations, but because of the surprising way one plausible deception leads to another, and another. "A Separation" preys on an audience's collective anxieties regarding children and parents and the cost of dealing vindictively with either a spouse or any perceived enemy. The second time I saw the film, a key line for what's at stake at the heart of the story emerged. "She is suffering," one parent says to the other about their child, after the split has provoked a terrifying amount of legal entanglement. "But she doesn't show it."
Late in the film there's a twist having to do with a sequence we're shown only part of earlier. This feels too convenient. And while "A Separation" steers clear of the slick, deck-stacked misogyny of America's preferred divorce drama, "Kramer vs. Kramer," its sympathies sometimes are funneled -- perhaps inadvertently, perhaps deliberately -- toward Nader and his predicament. The movie's so good, though, that even these quibbles feed the appetite for debate and discussion. A complex picture of modern-day Iran emerges in "A Separation" through its characters' religious beliefs, their defense mechanisms, their rootedness in tradition, even traditions they may not admire or appreciate.
In "Kramer vs. Kramer," not even Meryl Streep could find truth in the moments where the obviously inferior parent said things like "I'm no good for him; he's better off without me," referring to her son. Gripping yet virtually free of obvious manipulation or cheap tugs at the heart, "A Separation" builds on the moral quandaries of Farhadi's "About Elly," and does what its writer-director set out to do. In his words, it allows a thinking, feeling audience to "choose the angle from which they look at the film."