Most movies tell stories. But not all stories are equal. Because of its balance of grace, realism, and terrible, life-size suspense, the story in “A Separation’’ has few recent peers. This is a trenchant emotional thriller that you watch in dread, awe, and amazing aggravation. It’s entirely predicated upon the outcome of bad decisions - and it is not a comedy. The situation that unfolds approaches the absurdity of farce but denies the relief and release of humor. It’s a tragic farce. No option or choice is to be envied.
Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are getting a divorce. She has an opportunity to move out of Iran, but his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s and their bookish 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), is still in school. Nader doesn’t want to split up but he doesn’t want to leave, either. It doesn’t matter. The judge denies Simin’s request. Their case is a pity, he huffs, but it’s not hopeless. Still, Simin moves out of their comfortable, middle-class apartment and into her parents’ home.
Nader needs someone to look after his father, while Termeh is in class and Nader is at work. He winds up hiring Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a deferential woman who wears a full hijab. She lives some distance away and brings along her small daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini). Razieh needs the job, even though she’s accepted it without the customary permission of her husband. But looking after the old man proves too much for her, so she mentions the job to Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), her unemployed, hotheaded husband whose creditors want remittance. She omits the fact that the job had been hers. When Hodjat’s debt culminates in his incarceration she winds up having to resume looking after Nader’s father, anyway.
That, essentially, is the setup. And the only reason to be so detailed about it is to explain the stakes. A small chain of domestic mishaps accrues, putting each member of both couples at odds with another. What ensues are meetings, negotiations, arguments, insults, and several trips to court. In saying that, I’ve revealed only that there’s wood. Writer and director Asghar Farhadi produces the flame and smoke.
There is a kind of tension a movie can provoke that’s best described as vicarious stress. This is the stress of horror movies and most Michael Haneke films. You don’t want to see these characters compromise themselves and wish they could think more clearly. But Farhadi’s script, which was just nominated for an Academy Award (the film is a foreign-language nominee, as well), is a work of great dramatic transparency. The dilemmas achieve the delicate arrangement of ethical origami. In the case of every character, the wrongs tend to be parenthetical - a white lie you tell to expedite your arrival at the truth. Here, the parentheses have a way of closing in and suffocating you.
No matter where these characters stand or sit, they’re sinking in quicksand. When Nader attempts to reenact an incident for the police, you wish he’d stop lest he further incriminate himself. The same is true for Razieh, who appears to be so stressed out you’re worried she’ll faint. Every performance is superb, but Shahab Hosseini’s strange blend of gentleness and angry intensity is a mystery achievement. And Bayat lets you see the innocence leaving Termeh’s soul. The character understands her disillusionment and the downside of the movie’s moral forensics. Bayat just underscores that awareness by forcing the character to remain strong.
Too many movies feel they need to explain everything to us in order to be clear. Farhadi understands how, in life, that’s untrue. His movie assumes the higher priorities of that understanding: We don’t need to like characters to respond to their behavior, to align ourselves with them. Our perception of what we have heard or seen seems to change every 10 minutes anyway. We’re as much arbiters as the judges who hear these characters plead their cases. What an honor to be in the presence of a movie that trusts us with the responsibility.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.