The Iranian drama A Separation — the winner of this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film — is a gripping look at the way one mistake can lead to another, and the way one small lie can beget much bigger ones, creating a domino effect that ultimately threatens to bring everyone down.
In contemporary Tehran, a woman named Simin (Leila Hatami) petitions the court for a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), because he refuses to leave the country and emigrate to Europe, where Simin thinks their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), will have a better life. Nader, though, has a dementia-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) to care for, and he can't understand how Simin could be willing to move away and leave the old man to fend for himself.
A less ambitious movie might have built an entire drama about this seemingly irresolvable conflict, but the separation in A Separation — written and directed by Asghar Farhadi — is merely the pretext for a more complicated melodrama about class, gender and Iran's struggle between tradition and modernity. After Simin moves out of their apartment, Nader is forced to hire a female caretaker (Sareh Bayat), whose husband (Shahab Hosseini) doesn't know that she has taken the job. Trying to keep too many balls in the air, the caretaker briefly leaves the old man unattended, with disastrous consequences.
To say more about the plot would be to deny the chief pleasure of a film that movingly illustrates a familiar edict — that the more aggressively we try to take control of life, the more likely it will slip out of our grasp. In this respect, A Separation most obviously echoes the classical stage work of, say, Henrik Ibsen or Eugene O'Neill, who wrote domestic dramas in which the fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance.
As the story unfolds, and accusations and recriminations start to fly, the movie also very slyly suggests a contemporary update of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon: The truth of the story alters depending on whose perspective we are considering; and it is never entirely clear whether the characters are lying to themselves and each other, or simply speaking what they believe to be the truth.
If there's a shortcoming to A Separation, it's that the bickering among the principals grows a little wearying, and the big final-act revelation feels a bit contrived: Farhadi seems to be imposing symbolic meaning onto the material instead of allowing the story to flow organically.
But the ensemble cast is so convincing that you'll be more than willing to suspend disbelief. (Particular praise goes to the U.S.-born, Iran-raised Moadi, who combines the dark good looks of a young Robert De Niro with the quiet gravity of old-school icon Henry Fonda.) As for the film's finale, it's as mysterious as it is ingenious, a vivid reminder that when pride, ego, integrity and family become entangled, easy resolutions are impossible.