With clear eyes and an unyielding conscience, the Iranian drama A Separation chronicles an imperfect storm of good intentions, bad choices, selfishness and misplaced dignity. It’s completely engrossing and utterly painful to watch.
The picture has a deceptively simple opening scene, a static shot of a wife (Leila Hatami) and her husband (Peyman Moadi) discussing their potential divorce before a judge of some kind. She wants to leave the country with their daughter, but he insists on staying to care for his elderly father. Surely a straightforward drama about a woman seeking her independence in a male-dominated culture will follow?
Hardly. A Separation is far more complicated than that. The couple splits, necessitating the hiring of a young mother (Sareh Bayat) to come to the house to care for the older father. That leads to a number of awkward situations (how the devout young mother can bathe the older father when he unexpectedly soils himself is only one of them). Every action is fraught with unpleasant consequences. As the mistakes and misunderstandings mount, things begin to spiral out of control so that watching the movie is like being caught in a barbed-wire fence of ethical dilemmas.
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation defies our Western sense of narrative heroism. Not only is there no good guy or bad guy here, but throughout you can never fully decide which character most deserves your empathy. The kids involved are the only innocents; when the father played by Moadi puts his daughter on the spot before a judge, it’s the most excruciating moment in the picture.
Like so many films of 2011, A Separation also closes on an open-ended note, yet I can’t think of a better way for this knotty drama to finish. After all, it’s not about narrative resolution or individual justice. It’s about how – in real life – such things so often elude us.