The first-ever Iranian film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the first Farsi-language film ever nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, writer/director Asghar Farhadi's elegant family drama represents something of a Neorealist departure from the more lyrical films of the Iranian New Wave period. That distinction, which has helped earn it a near-sweep of pre-Oscar foreign language film honors, should likewise contribute to a healthier-than-expected showing in arthouses where patrons, increasingly starved by a dearth of quality foreign product and an ongoing specialty distribution vacuum in the United States, will warmly receive it for the rare gem that it is.
As with many films in the neorealist tradition, be they Italian, Iranian, Chinese or otherwise, A Separation details the ways in which small, seemingly negligible choices dovetail into broader, life-changing events. The titular event here is the disintegrating marriage of a middle-class Iranian couple in Tehran: Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). She wishes to leave the country to secure a better life for their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter), but he is unwilling to abandon his ailing father, who suffers from Alzheimer's Disease. Their irreconcilable differences are not accepted by the family court, leaving Simin no choice but to move out with Termeh. Unable to care for his father alone, Nader hires a young pregnant woman from the country to handle day care responsibilities. It's an innocent enough agreement that ends up entangling two families in a series of increasingly tragic events that will leave no one unchanged and no one unscathed.
Where Farhadi parts company with his more lyrical compatriots—Kiarostami, Majidi, Panahi, Mehrjui and the Makhmalbafs—is in his refusal to romanticize any element of Iranian life and open willingness to confront bureaucratic gridlock. While the human element of the film is undeniably universal, the insights it provides into the Iranian family court system, which provides the film its narrative backbone, are uniquely compelling. In this respect it often has more in common with recent Romanian films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Police, Adjective as well as Zhang Yimou's 1992 The Story of Qiu Ju, all of which offered viewers a rare glimpse inside some of the more peculiar and confusing bureaucracies of their respective cultures.
Meticulously thoughtful and economical in its execution, from its camerawork to its editing, Farhadi's carefully wrought narrative and the ways it handles the fragile emotions of its characters truly sets it apart, not only from contemporary Iranian cinema but world cinema in general. At a time when tensions between Iran and the rest of the world remain at an all-time high, while Jafar Panahi sits in prison and Abbas Kiarostami lives in exile, the arrival of a new Iranian film that is not just emotionally honest but openly questioning of a bureaucracy rooted in arcane and unrealistic religious expectations, must be seen in a broader context. Regardless if A Separation is the best foreign film of the year, there can be little disputation that it is far and away the most relevant.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Merila Zare'i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Asghar Farhadi
Genre: Drama; Farsi-language, subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material.
Running time: 123 min.
Release date: December 30 NY/LA