The first Iranian film to win an Academy Award — Best Foreign Language Film, in case you missed writer-director Asghar Farhadi's stirring speech Sunday night — the domestic drama A Separation is a story of dilemmas within dilemmas, of moral, legal, cultural and religious quandaries that only spawn more quandaries. It will not spoil anything to tell you that A Separation begins and ends with questions for which no satisfying answers exist.
In the opening scene, a couple faces an off-screen arbitrator as they argue about a possible divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to legally separate from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), so that she may leave the country with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. (In a measure of the movie's stakes, the girl is played by Sarina Farhadi, the director's own daughter.)
Nader refuses to leave, insisting that he must stay and care for his dementia-addled father. Neither seems to want the divorce. Nader wants his wife and daughter to stay in Iran, while Simin says that if Nader would leave with them, she would drop her claim. But without a divorce or her husband's permission — neither of which Nader will grant — Simin can't leave the country with Termeh.
After Simin moves out, Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father. Razieh, who is pregnant and brings her daughter to work with her, embodies the movie's social arithmetic: Add just one person, and the opportunities for misunderstanding and clashing motivations multiply exponentially. That's even before factoring in her husband, who is unemployed, deeply in debt, does not know she has taken such a job — and would not approve.
Farhadi's brilliantly constructed screenplay (also nominated for an Oscar) avoids cheap manipulation while turning the universal headaches of everyday living — marital problems, aging parents, household expenses — into minefields. I won't compromise it by further summarizing the plot, except to say that soon we're back in court, and the stakes are now life or death.
And yet if the conflicts within A Separation seem inevitable, it's not because these characters have been sucked helplessly into them. Farhadi neither condemns nor pardons, and so we have trouble doing so ourselves. A Separation doesn't abdicate the idea of identifiable right and wrong, but it does submit that when humans are involved — and not, say, comic-book heroes and villains — determining which is which is more challenging.
In a country prone to absolutes — and Levitical punishments for those who stray — such a proposal might look like an act of defiance. (Indeed, just making a film in Iran is often a political act: See Jafar Panahi defy the terms of his six-year jail sentence and 20-year ban on film work in his self-shot documentary This Is Not a Film.) But while the stifling, dictatorial context in which the film exists is not ignored completely — Simin tells the magistrate that she doesn't want her daughter to "grow up under these circumstances" — the entrenched patriarchy and class hierarchy affect the characters less conspicuously than Western viewers might expect.
The actors give expertly constrained performances, each so firmly convinced of his or her character's point of view that you wonder if the cast avoided reading anyone else's lines. And Farhadi's shot selection is often expressive enough to remove the need for subtitles. But A Separation stands out most for depicting so forcefully a dire human predicament: That each of us has the capacity for rational behavior and the propensity for irrational self-interest, but not the ability to judge for ourselves which is which.