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A Separation

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

A Separation

“He is a good, decent person,” a woman says about the man sitting next to her.

She is speaking to a judge, from whose point of view we see the couple. The judge asks, “Then why do you want a divorce?”

Not an unreasonable question. Everything in A Separation is reasonable. People try to act in the best interests of themselves and their families. And yet somehow, despite all best intentions, things go awry.

There wasn’t a whole lot that I was rooting for at the Academy Awards a few days ago. Some things I was rooting against, sure, like no more Oscars to John Williams for re-writing the same score.

But the one thing I wanted to see happen was for this film from Iran to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Which, in case you weren’t watching, it did.

It’s an excellent film, no question. I don’t doubt that the other four nominees in the category are as well: I haven’t seen any of them. But in this case, the Oscar will be useful in ways other than boosting the box office take (not always a given—it didn’t help the wonderful Japanese film Departures that won a few years ago.)

For one thing, it will help the plight of filmmakers in Iran, who are under very heavy pressure from their government. We’re talking about jail and/or exile, for work that you really have to comb with a fine tooth to find examples of sedition. Even though the Iranian government regards film as a decadent art, corrupted by a liberal Western perspective, they’ve been crowing about this win—especially because one of the other nominees was an Israeli film.

And it will certainly introduce Iranian cinema to at least some Americans who, as Roger Ebert surmises, probably “picture Iranians as camel-riding harem-keepers.” Despite the roadblocks put in their way by a theocratic regime with ideas rooted in the 13th century, Iranian filmmakers are some of the best in the world, forging an ongoing portrait of a people who are very little different from the rest of us, if you’ll just take the tiny trouble to read the words on the bottom of the screen.

Watching the movies a people make about themselves, I have always felt, is one of the best ways to cure the impulse to drop bombs on them.

Like the best Iranian films, A Separation seems to be rambling and fond of following tangents, but despite the low-key documentary style approach, this is a carefully structured film. Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami, who resembles a young Isabella Rossellini) are a middle-class couple in Tehran, with a reasonably happy marriage and an 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). They have an opportunity to move out of the country. Simin wants to go because she feels their daughter will have a better life. Nader doesn’t disagree, but has to tend to his aged father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The husband can’t leave, the wife can’t stay, but by law she can’t take Termeh away from her father.

This is all laid out in the first five minutes of A Separation, in a scene borrowed from the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. After that, though, the film goes to places you don’t expect, primarily involving another couple: a devout woman (Sareh Bayat) hired by Nader to care for his father while he is at work, and her proud but unemployed and indebted husband (Shahab Hosseini). Misunderstandings occur, people dig in their heels, even lie, and minor problems threaten to destroy lives.

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi refers to his film as a detective story where the audience is the detective. He withholds certain bits of information, not to trick us but to keep us unaware of the full nature of the story so that we will not pass judgment on it. It’s similar to the work of England’s Mike Leigh in its concerns, if not its approach, that chaos is always present in the details of day to day life.

There is not a better film to see in theaters this week.

Watch the trailer for A Separation

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