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A Separation - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
A Separation
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

It's hard to come up with any flaws in A Separation without sounding like I'm just quibbling. There's a lot of shaky, hand-held cinematography, and it's slightly distracting. Slightly is the operative word, because the story is completely absorbing.

This is a rare movie with nearly universal critical acclaim. It's not uncommon to go to such a movie and then wonder what all the fuss was about. In this case, it's clear. This is a movie unlike any other, for a multitude of reasons, not least of which is that it comes from Iran, is made by Iranians, and is about regular, everyday Iranian people.

The value of this to American audiences cannot be underestimated. This goes a step beyond the TLC reality series All-American Muslim, which depicts the lives of everyday Muslims in the United States. The level to which those people are vilified is one thing; Iran is far more separated, clear on the other side of the world, and many Americans likely think of them in nothing more than preconceived notions of evil extremism.

But these people lead normal lives just like anyone. Islam, while clearly a very present subtext at all times, is merely the backdrop. They have kids who pack their backpacks with books and go to school every day. They have shelves of books in their homes, surrounding a flat screen TV. They live in apartments, commute to work, take buses. It's just that most of the women have their heads covered. Otherwise, the way they live their day to day lives is barely distinguishable from our own.

But then, subtle details creep in that do illustrate more pointed differences. They have marital problems -- that being largely the basis of the story here. But how the desire for divorce is handled is filtered through the laws of a Muslim country. That said, you might be surprised at how familiar the proceedings are. This is a pretty universal situation.

The film opens with Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) sitting before a judge. The camera is the judge's point of view, so the couple looks straight at us, the audience. These two people, who actually do not hate each other -- Simin even states that Nader is a good man -- have reached an impasse. Simin wants to leave the country, to provide a better future for her 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (an excellent Sarina Farhadi). The judge seems vaguely offended by the notion that staying in Iran should not be good enough, but remains reasonable under the circumstances. Nader refuses to leave the country because he won't leave his ailing father, who has Alzheimer's and lives with them.

Both the man and woman must agree to the divorce, and since they don't -- or at least they can't seem to come to a clear agreement -- the judge denies the request. Simin moves in with her mother. The real trouble starts when Nader hires a housekeeper, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who is keeping her job a secret from her unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini) because she shouldn't be alone in the home of another man.

This scenario is where I found myself thinking there were some slight lapses in logic. The marital issues between Simin and Nader are perfectly believable. But if all of these characters are as devout as we are clearly meant to think they are, under these circumstances, why would Simin leave Nader in such a desperate situation? He has no choice but to hire help; he has limited funds to do it; that results in his hiring a pregnant woman against his better judgment.

There are too many details to recount here, but suffice it to say that when Nader comes home one day to find Razieh gone and his dad tied to his bed, he is understandably angry. He accuses her of stealing money (I'm not it was ever revealed where that money went, actually) and insists she leave his home. He shoves her out the door; the next thing he knows, she's had a miscarriage and he's being charged with murder. Much legal wrangling ensues, with Razieh and her husband pressing charges against Nader and Nader filing a complaint against Razieh for what she did to his father.

In a way, A Separation becomes a Muslim version of a procedural, with several witnesses bearing key information based on only partial observance of things that happened. Nader himself does not know to what extent he may have actually hurt the woman, and must decide how much truth he should tell or withhold in a desperate attempt to stay out of jail. More than once, the tide turns on someone asked to swear on the Koran. This seems to be the ultimate truth-serum, and one wonders why they don't resort to it earlier.

More than anything, though, it's about how all these things affect Simin and Nader's marriage, and their respective relationships to their daughter. One can only assume this was a film originally intended for Iranian audiences, which would have a far different context than in the U.S. Witer-director Asghar Farhadi infuses the story with details about how Islam presents challenges under these circumstances, but it never quite feels like a statement about Islam. It’s just a really compelling story that happens to be about Muslim people. That alone is reason enough for American audiences to check it out. That it's such a well-executed story is reason for them to be glad they did.

a separation

Overall: A-
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