A Separation is two hours of stress and an Inception-like ending. From the very beginning of writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s film (Iran’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar), folks are yelling. Specifically, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) bicker as a judge weighs Simin’s request for a divorce. Wary of the social climate in Iran, Simin wants to move abroad with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s kid). Nader refuses to leave because he’s the sole caretaker of his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who has Alzheimer’s. (“He doesn’t even know that he’s his son. What difference does it make to him?” she says coldly.) So Simin wants out of their 14-year marriage, and in the meantime moves in with her mother, leaving Termeh behind.
All that would be sufficient fodder for a typical family drama, but there’s much more to this story. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is a God-fearing woman who starts to look after Nader’s dad but is concerned about the religious implications of, say, changing the man’s underwear (not to mention her own pregnancy). She already has an adorable little girl named Somayeh, played by Kimia Hosseini, who will later serve as the eyes and ears of what goes on in the house and at home.
What happens between Razieh and Nader is best left discovered by the viewer, but let’s just say it’s all incredibly compelling stuff—this isn’t a film that makes you look at your watch. It’s true that throughout almost the entire running time, one character or another is arguing or raising his or her voice, but these spats are never a burden; Farhadi knows how to move his plot at high pitch, all the way up to the angst-ridden open ending. (Grr.) The central couple’s impending divorce becomes almost an afterthought amid the father’s heartbreaking senility and the stress on Razieh’s face that anyone with a declining elderly parent will recognize. You also pity poor Termeh, who helps take care of her grandfather as best as an 11-year-old can. Shot using a handheld camera and boasting terrific performances from its all-ages cast, A Separation feels like a peek through a neighbor’s window.