A Separation is the kind of film that threw me for a loop. That doesn't happen very often.
The Iranian drama, winner of the 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, is a probing, documentary-style chronicle of a married couple in the throes of splitting up. It's not that simple, however. Director-screenwriter Asghar Farhadi uses that domestic strife as a framework for a compelling mystery that is on par with the slickest of Hollywood productions. Since the story is deeply steeped in the laws and social mores of Iran, we all should be grateful that a big-budget remake starring Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie will not be arriving any time soon.
A Separation opens as the film's separated main couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), sit in front of an unseen moderator discussing the reasons why Simin wants a divorce and her husband won't allow it. Simin also desires to move to another country, but the divorce cannot proceed without mutual consent from Nader - who needs for Simin to stay on to help take care of Nader's ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), afflicted with Alzheimer's. The couple's studious 11 year-old daughter, Termeh (played by the director's daughter, Sarina Farhadi), is caught in the middle.
Back at Nader's modest apartment, we witness the uncomfortable situation the man is in. With Simin away and Termeh busy with schoolwork, Nader resorts to hiring outside help to oversee his father during the daytime. Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a sad-eyed woman with a young daughter (Kimiya Hosseini) in tow, travels across town each day to look after the old man. Razieh finds it difficult, however, since her religious convictions forbid her from doing things like bathing him or changing his clothes. There's also the matter of her being pregnant, which she hides from Nader. The strain of so many responsibilities becomes such that he ends up escaping the apartment one day when she's busy tending to her daughter. That episode goes undetected by the family, but the next afternoon Nader and Termeh come home to find the old man unconscious and tied to his bed. When Razieh and her daughter return to the apartment, a furious Nader berates her and accuses the woman of stealing some cash. In the ensuing scuffle, Razieh is ejected from the apartment.
From this point on, A Separation becomes an absorbing "he said, she said" series of legal entanglements which involves most of the characters already seen, along with a few others. After Razieh is hospitalized and loses her baby, she and her prideful, short-fused husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) accuse Nader of deliberately shoving Razieh down the stairs. Since the murder of an unborn child is a punishable offense in Iran, Nader faces a jail sentence. As the characters argue their case in front of a world-weary interrogator (Babak Karimi) in the Iranian version of a pre-court hearing, Farhadi's screenplay gives a lot of good indications of the characters and where their motivations lie. Nader's m.o. is self-preservation and respect, Simin wants to smooth everything over with money, Termeh angles to keep her parents together, Hojjat seeks justice (and maybe revenge), while the enigmatic Razieh merely wants to come away from all this with her dignity intact. The only characters without agendas are the old man and Razieh's daughter (who is both adorable and poignant). It's a fascinating drama with a lot of valuable insights into human behavior. The effect that the events have on the kid characters is especially interesting. Termeh shoulders an emotional burden that goes well beyond her years, and the younger girl seems to have this implicit understanding that she'll eventually be in Termeh's place, too - as the moderator between two dysfunctional parents.
A Separation is an excellent instance where a film's script and performances are so compelling that one totally forgets it's a foreign-language film. Asghar Farhadi's biggest skill here lies in creating situations that are region-specific (this couldn't take place anywhere but in Iran) while being populated with sympathetic, realistically drawn characters that have a universal appeal. This film also benefits from a wonderful ensemble cast. There isn't a single standout performance, but I'd have to give special props to actor Sareh Bayat for his committed portrayal of Nader.
Sony Pictures Classics' single disc edition of A Separation presents the film in a way that's as good as the DVD format gets. The cinematography is for the most part hand-held and unpretentious, shot mostly under natural lighting conditions. The film is beautifully mastered on disc with a smooth picture that is free of digital smudging and artifacts.
The film's scoreless, dialogue-driven soundtrack is well-served by the disc's stereo audio, which is present here in either its original Persian language or dubbed French. It's clearly mixed and pleasant. Optional subtitles in English and French are supplied as well.
The DVD edition of A Separation comes with a nice amount of extras, all worthwhile. First up is an audio commentary in which director-screenwriter Asghar Farhadi delves into the finer points of the film's production, often pointing out details that would have normally been missed. The track is spoken in Persian with subtitles that replace the film's subtitles. The 30-minute An Evening with Ashar Farhadi finds the director at a screening fielding questions with a moderator and translator, with some interesting tidbits. Birth of a Director (7:50) is a more intimate Q&A with Farhadi which is illustrated with some clips from his earlier films. A theatrical trailer rounds out the bonus materials.
Final Thoughts: The Academy Awards are notoriously inconsistent when it comes to selecting the Best Foreign Language Film award; with 2011's intriguing domestic drama A Separation, they actually picked a winner that even foreign film-phobes would enjoy. The excellent work of Iranian director-screenwriter Asghar Farhadi and a fabulous cast is given an elegant treatment with Sony Pictures Classics' DVD edition. Highly Recommended.