‘A Separation’: Complicated study of human foibles in Iran

From a single moment of anger, a world of devastating complications grows: This is “A Separation,” a powerful Iranian film of Dickensian detail. The movie earned two Oscar nominations last week, for foreign-language film and original screenplay, and nobody who sees it will wonder why.

Even that one moment of anger grows out of a web of complex motivations. It happens when a man, Nader (Payman Moadi), orders a housekeeper (Sareh Bayat) out of his apartment, furious that she has neglected the care of his father, who has dementia.

The reason Nader needed to hire the housekeeper was that his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), has moved out of the home. She wants to leave Iran and raise their child in a freer society, but Nader refuses, so they are officially separated.

At first, we think this issue, the urge to leave Iran, will be the film’s subject. And in a way it is, even when it is overwhelmed by the specifics of a legal case that grows pricklier as the movie goes along.

The film is devastating both as a study of human foibles — the lies people tell are impossible to get out of, once made — and of bureaucratic oppression. It’s unsparing on both counts.

None of the issues is presented as black and white. Everyone has reasons, and everyone makes mistakes, and we viewers are forced to think for ourselves instead of having our responses spoon-fed to us.

“A Separation” touches on the way the state itself is corrupted by religious influence and a fiercely male-oriented society. It is extremely tricky for moviemakers to explore critical ideas in Iran, as witnessed by the arrest and imprisonment of Jafar Panahi, the brilliant Iranian director who makes movies that tell the truth about life in his country.

I suppose “A Separation” sneaked past the officials because it couches its criticism within this deeply human and specific story. And that’s true: You’re not preached to or inundated by heavy-handed social criticism while you watch this film, but it all seeps through anyway.

It’s beautifully acted, and director-writer Asghar Farhadi finds subtle ways to place us in the position of neutral observer, watching a very sad situation unfold. By the time the movie reaches its end, we’re left with the conclusion that there really is no way out, not when the deck is rigged like this.

So many legal movies depend on the outcome to finish off a suspenseful story. But there aren’t any winners here, only the overall sense of loss and sadness.

“A Separation”

A devastating look at the way a minor incident expands into a potentially catastrophic legal case, a situation treated with Dickensian detail by director Asghar Farhadi. The film eloquently explores both the all-too-human mistakes of its characters but also their oppressed place within the theocratic system in Iran. In Farsi, with English subtitles.

Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Egyptian.

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