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movie review

Leila Hatami, left, and Peyman Moadi in a scene from "A Separation"

A Separation is a superb detective story but, being set in contemporary Iran, it's like no other you've seen before. Those Agatha Christie questions are all there – who did what to whom and why? – but the answers are the least important part of the film.

Much like Robert Altman during his forays into the genre, writer/director Asghar Farhadi isn't really interested in the answers. Instead, he keeps expanding the questions, until that singular title comes to seem a misnomer.

What's at stake here are multiple separations, between husband and wife, parent and child, rich and poor, secular and religious, and ultimately, patriot and expatriate. In the guise of a whodunit, Farhadi paints a nuanced portrait of Iranian society that, seen through our Western eyes, looks at once utterly alien and strikingly familiar.

In the pre-credit sequence, a middle-class couple are in a divorce court addressing an unseen judge and thus, by extension, us. Simin concedes that her husband Nader is a "decent man" yet, for reasons that aren't specified (the first unanswered question), she wants to leave the country. He's willing to grant her petition, but not if she takes Termeh, their 11-year old daughter. The unseen judge advises them to settle matters themselves, adding for emphasis: "You have a little problem".

It's about to get much bigger. Simin (Leila Hatami) packs for her mother's house, leaving Termeh to stay in the apartment with her Dad, who's also tending to his own septuagenarian father, a near-mute oldster deep in the throes of Alzheimer's. Obliged to find a caregiver to watch over the old man during the day, Nader (Peyman Moadi) hires Razieh, a harried woman accompanied by her young daughter. She has a 2 1/2-hour commute just to get to the place. Oh, she's also pregnant.

Unlike her middle-class employer, Razieh is poor and devout, with an unemployed husband who is perpetually hounded and occasionally jailed by his creditors. Conscious of his disapproval, she hides her new job from him and, worse, experiences a crisis of faith on her first day. Grandpa soils his pants, prompting Razieh to place a frantic call to the Islamic hotline: "If I change him, will it count as a sin?"

These details, impeccably etched in the script and performed by the cast, strike a universal chord. The domestic friction, the custody dispute, the ailing parent, the worried search for a caregiver, we all recognize these anxieties. But the Islamic hotline, well, that's a whole new level of complication. So you can see the pattern emerging – utterly alien and strikingly familiar.

The crime, if it is one, is rooted in the same mundane soil. One afternoon, Nader arrives home to discover his unattended father collapsed on the floor. Off on a personal errand, Razieh left him alone. On her return, she and her boss get into a shouting match; deeming it a firing offence, he aggressively shows her to the door, so aggressively that she stumbles on the outside steps. Razieh falls, and suffers a miscarriage. Nader is summoned before a magistrate, and charged with murder.

Did he push her? Did he know she was pregnant? Is she withholding information about her miscarriage? Is her hot-headed husband rather too keen for a financial settlement? These are the queries that get fiercely debated in the hurly-burly of the magistrate's cramped office. He's a balding and clearly overburdened fellow, although with a surprisingly keen sense of even-handed justice. However, there as here, the law is eager for hard facts but blind to subtle truths.

It's those crucial subtleties that Farhadi is after and, even when the endless haranguing seems tedious (which it sometimes does), he finds them. As a result, every adult involved emerges as badly flawed, and yet all of them enjoy our complete sympathy. They are blameworthy and blameless. They are also far less knowing than the children, especially Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Imperturbably calm, always observant, she's like a second lens here, watching from behind her wire-rimmed glasses much as the camera peers through windows and doors, seeing everything.

In the end, as the emblem of Iranian youth, Termeh is the real detective who must make a choice, not between right and wrong but between degrees of rightness. So the wise child is faced with the cruellest dilemma, because choosing one inevitably means wronging the other – that's the final separation, impossible to bridge.

A Separation

  • Directed and written by Asghar Farhadi
  • Starring Peyman Moadi and Sarina Farhadi
  • Classification: PG
  • 3.5 stars