Film Review: Oscar honoree 'Separation' paints universal human portrait

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are a Tehran couple whose marriage is on the rocks in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning 'A Separation.'

Habib Madjidi / Sony Pictures Classics

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are a Tehran couple whose marriage is on the rocks in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning "A Separation."

On Sunday night, the extremely deserving "A Separation" became the first movie from Iran to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The award was overdue. Iran has a rich, distinctive and innovative film history, and the country continues to be home to an extraordinary film culture, even if the current regime requires its artists to be courageous and clever as well as creative. (The surreal "The White Meadows," which screened in Memphis last year, led to the imprisonment of director Mohammad Rasoulof, on charges of perpetrating "propaganda against the Islamic Republic.")

Wanting to leave Iran with her husband Nader and daughter Termeh, Simin makes all the necessary arrangements. However, her husband Nader refuses to leave behind ...

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material

Length: 123 minutes

Released: December 30, 2011 NY/LA

Cast: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Writer: Asghar Farhadi

More info and showtimes »

A regime is not its people, however, and those whose images of Iran come entirely from demonizing news reports may be shocked by the normalcy that determines "A Separation." This devastating portrait of two families in crisis is set in crowded modern Tehran, but it could take place anywhere. It's extremely authentic and thus specifically Iranian in detail, but moviegoers everywhere will be able to recognize themselves and their loved ones in the story's complex characters, whose worries include work, school, marriage, faith and coping with an elderly relative with Alzheimer's.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the spiraling, unforeseen and potentially ruinous consequences that drive the story stem from its title event, as attractive Simin (Leila Hatami) leaves Nader (Peyman Maadi), her husband of 14 years, because he no longer is willing to emigrate from Iran to a more progressive country. Nader says he must remain in his homeland because of his duty to his Alzheimer's-stricken father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who lives in the family's relatively spacious apartment; Simin argues they must leave for the sake of their adolescent daughter (Sarina Farhadi).

With his wife gone, Nader needs someone to care for his father on workdays. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim whose pregnancy is pretty much hidden beneath the black cloak of her chador. Accompanied by her big-eyed and adorable young daughter (Kimia Hosseini), Razieh keeps this job secret from her "hot-tempered" unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). The secrecy is just one reason Razieh may not be ideally suited to the job. When Nader's father wets himself, the sexually modest woman must call someone for religious guidance, to ask: "If I change him, will it count as a sin?"

Distracted by the veils and references to the Quran, American viewers may not immediately recognize the class differences that represent another form of separation. Simin and Nader are educated, liberal (Simin's veil is more fashion accessory than sign of faith) and relatively well off; Razieh and Hodjat are poor, devout and struggling. Hodjat carries a motorbike helmet, which a Memphis moviegoer might interpret as a sign of cool; in fact, it's an indicator that he, unlike Nader, can't afford a car.

This "separation" between the families couldn't be more relevant for U.S. viewers, especially during a presidential campaign season that has fomented class resentments and divisiveness to such an extent that one candidate said he wanted to "throw up" at the suggestion that church and state should be distinct. Isn't that the type of rhetoric Americans used to associate with demagogues in countries like Iran?

Farhadi shoots much of the film with a handheld camera, which creates intimacy but also instability, as regrettable decisions and stubborn adherence to almost dogmatic concepts of honor and pride shake the security of the families and spark a protective cover of secrets and lies. If the latter words makes you think of British director Mike Leigh, the master of uncomfortable ensemble cinematic portraiture, they should; Farhadi, like Leigh, embraces life in all its messy, awful, regrettable, uncertain wonder. Even so, "A Separation" feels more vital and real and cinematic than anything Leigh has staged in years.

In Persian with English subtitles, "A Separation" is at the Studio on the Square.

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