'A Separation" manages such a sublime balance of complexity and clarity, of the unique and familiar, that it's breathtaking.
This is, simply put, one of the best films I've ever seen. And I've seen a few films. Written and directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi, "A Separation" starts out as a domestic drama, then morphs into something resembling a murder mystery, all the while wrestling with the natures of truth and justice, right and wrong. It's about family, and society, and honor, and love ... good heavens, what isn't it about?
Well, it's not about space aliens or superheroes. Possibly the most stunning thing about "A Separation" is its remarkable originality.
The film begins with wife Simin (Leila Hatami) arguing in court for a divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Moadi).
She wants the family to move away from Iran for the good of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter). He does not want to abandon his dementia-riddled father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). She pleads for a divorce so she can leave; the court denies her.
OK, so the movie's about a family dealing with divorce and dementia, right? Hardly.
Simin moves back in with her family, Nader and Termeh continue to care for the old man. Nader hires a lower-class woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for the man during the day, while he's at work and Termeh's at school.
Unfortunately, Razieh is distracted by both her own little daughter (Kimia Hosseini) and tensions at home with her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). This leads to a literal falling out with Nader that ends up endangering both families.
For a long while, director Farhadi offers up lies while keeping the truth elusive, both in terms of the story and the characters themselves. The facts of the situation are eventually resolved; the effect of those facts may never be.
Aside from Simin's initial motivation to take her family out of Iran, "A Separation" is not a political film or a film that is in any way critical of Islam. It moves with complete comfort within the norms of its culture, and that ease makes the film simultaneously more fascinating and genuine feeling.
But if the film is comfortable in its surroundings and culture, it is in no way satisfied with the universal human condition. Messes pile upon messes here, the way messes might pile upon messes anywhere, and the results range from wearying to devastating.
The film's most effective moment finds the teen Termeh silently exchanging a wary, worried look with Razieh's much younger daughter. This is the world they will inherit? This is the future?
"A Separation" offers a complex and layered story about flawed characters trying to make their way through life, stumbling, fumbling and often desperate. These people seem so real they might live next door. And they probably do.