'A Separation' Review: lluminating the Iran Not Seen on the News

It’s easy to get one view of a foreign nation from our government’s relationship with it, or news coverage that paints a nation as either “good” or “evil.” But sometimes it’s possible to see an entirely different perspective on life abroad through the way a movie shines a light on its people and their everyday lives.

Starting today, America has a chance to see Iran through a simple yet fascinating prism, as the Iranian submission for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration – “A Separation” – opens in select theaters.

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While it is only playing in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, it should prove to be compelling viewing for art-house film lovers as it expands to more theaters nationwide in the weeks to come.

The film, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, starts out with the deceptively simple premise of a young couple sitting before a judge and arguing over whether they should be granted a divorce. The wife, named Simin, wants to move with her husband Nader and 11-year-old daughter Tamreh to a foreign land where their daughter can have an unspecified “better life.” The couple is afraid to admit it in front of a judge who represents either the government or Islamic rule or both, but the implication is that they know their daughter will never have a truly free and happy life under the oppressive Iranian system.

The reason that Simin needs to consider divorce is that Nader feels he can’t move with her because he is caring for his own Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and is afraid the move could kill him. When the judge won’t grant a divorce because Nader won’t agree to one, Simin calls his bluff and moves out under the guise of having a separation, which leads Nader to seek a day-care nurse for his father.

So far, so simple – and seemingly boring. But it is here that things start to spiral out of control, as the new nurse, Razieh, is not only inexperienced and afraid to fully attend to his father’s care like washing him due to her fear of breaking Islamic rules, but she’s also hiding the fact that she’s pregnant because she’s afraid Nader won’t hire her if he knows she’s physically limited.

When Nader comes home early one day, he finds his father nearly dead on the floor of his room, with one arm tied to his bed and the nurse nowhere in sight. When she tries to sneak back into the apartment as if nothing happened, the normally cool-headed Nader loses his temper and orders her out. And in an expertly shot moment designed to leave viewers guessing about what happens next, he pushes her out of the apartment.

Razieh claims that the push caused her to fall and miscarry her baby, which drives her husband into a rage-fueled lust for revenge and drags Nader into a complex investigation in which everyone around him seems to have conflicting opinions of not only what actually happened between him and Razieh, but about his very character himself. With seemingly every character hiding a motive and revealing their true natures with one plot twist after another, “A Separation” grows into a psychological thriller of quiet but unforgettable power.

I’m normally not a big fan of foreign films and didn’t have any idea that “A Separation” was headed into such involving and exciting directions. The film is being poorly described on IMDB.com and elsewhere as a mere portrait of a marriage and the stresses of caring for an elder, when in reality its final 90 minutes are nearly Hitchcockian in their portrait of an average man having to prove himself innocent in a nightmare situation.

Adding to the film’s many pleasures is the fact that its cast is completely unknown to American viewers. If Brad Pitt had been caught in Nader’s situation, audiences would be predisposed to think how he’ll get out of the situation. But as played by the magnetic Peyman Maadi, Nader’s motivations and reactions to one terrible twist of fate after another are utterly unpredictable. Is he innocent? Guilty? Both?

Farhadi manages to keep viewers guessing nearly all the way to the end before bringing things to a close with a quiet emotional wallop that returns the story to the marriage. While his characters are all believing Muslims and swearing on the Koran becomes central to some of the plot threads, the film offers a quiet critique of the extent that strict Islamic rules pervade every aspect of Iranian life.

After all, the entire plot kicks into gear because Nader’s wife Simin wants out of the country so badly. Her desire for basic rights and freedoms and the ability to live out her dreams on equal footing as a woman in that male-dominated society is a universally relatable one. And the fact that “A Separation” puts a human face on its average citizens who have nothing to do with the insane pronouncements of their leader (which in itself is parallel to America these days), is what makes it must-see viewing for any American who hopes we can effect change in that society without resorting to war.

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