Divorce is hard on everyone involved. Divorce in Iran is even harder, according to the splintering seen in writer-director Asghar Farhadi's quietly powerful drama "A Separation" but only in part because of the religious strictures of that country's society.
Those strictures come into play in the dispute that begins the film. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate out of Iran to give her daughter Termeh (played by the director's daughter, Sarina) a chance at a good education. Simin's husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), refuses to leave Iran; he wants to tend to his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Nader won't give Simin a divorce, which would allow her to leave Iran with Termeh, so Simin moves in with her parents, leaving Nader alone with his father.
Since Nader has a job, he hires a maid, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to tend to his father. But Razieh, a strict Muslim, is uncomfortable dealing with the old man's bathroom issues, so she decides to quit after the first day. Nader persuades Razieh to come back, but problems persist and Nader gets so frustrated with Razieh that he refuses to pay her. When she demands her money, Nader pushes her away from the door. Razieh falls down the stairs and is injured and what began as a small domestic incident escalates into a matter for the courts.
Farhadi's screenplay (which received an Oscar nomination, as did the film in the foreign-language category) is a marvel of small details adding up to a shattering conclusion. Every moment is telling, as the balance of power shifts from Simin to Nader to Razieh and her hotheaded husband (Shahab Hosseini) and back as new information is revealed, drop by drop, creating an unbearable tension that Hitchcock would have appreciated.
The performances are stunning. Maadi captures the slippery morality of Nader, who talks his way into trouble with a judge and thinks he can talk himself out of it. Even more powerful is Hatami, whose inward bristling at the conventions that keep her from leaving Iran is invisible but palpable.
What's most effective about "A Separation" is that there are no good guys and no bad guys. There are just people, all doing what they think is right given their particular situations and their personal beliefs. The fact that things turn out so wrong isn't an indictment of Iran's restrictive religious laws, but of the basic inability of humans to communicate with others.
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A dispute between families spirals out of control in this moving drama of modern Iran.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas
When • Opens Friday, Feb. 24.
Rating • PG-13 for mature thematic material.
Running time • 123 minutes; in Persian with subtitles.