Simin wants to take her family overseas for a better life. Her husband, Nader, wants them all to stay in Iran. He has a father with advanced Alzheimers who cannot be transported. The film opens with the pair speaking directly to the camera which is standing in for the judge hearing Simin's plea for divorce. Nader agrees to the divorce but not to loss of custody of their daughter. Both have to agree in full to a list of conditions but there is no resolution. They agree to separate. No one is happy.
Without Simin, things rapidly fall apart at home. A new housekeeper proves disastrous. By the second day she has neglected the Nader's father and abandoned him. Nader pushes her to keep her out of the flat. She falls. Next stop hospital where she has suffered a miscarriage. Her hothead husband blames Nader and assaults him and then brings a charge of murder against him. Simin, who recommended the woman for the job, is drawn back into the family and must find a way out for them all. Their daughter, Termeh, watches, knowing she will be called upon, suspecting it will be painful.
I've left a lot of detail out here because it's worth watching the threads wind and weave a tight fabric. This film pits reason against honour and the crushing failure of everyone involved to resolve them. There's decision making under the influence of anger, fear and desperation, all taken to a point where anyone stepping back and admitting to the untruth that they have presented so adamantly would result in an unravelling disaster for them. Any number of solutions conceived and offered are barred by circumstance or ethical principle. There is no hope here that is not quenched by a single thought.
The primary impression you will have from watching this film is the powerful naturalism of the dialogue and performance but this is no affected cinema verite. Either that or you might find the depiction of the Iranian legal system fascinating. Perhaps it will be the depth to which the daily life of this middle class family is presented. What you will end up with might appear a treasure trove of keen observation and miss altogether how strongly cinematic this piece is.
From the opening sensor-eye view of documents being flattened and scanned on a photocopier plate, to the get-involved-or-get-left-behind extreme point of view shooting of the opening dialogue and the long takes that revisit the memory as conventionally edited scenes (for the opposite of this see Irreversible), A Separation keeps the events and relations in compelling close view to the effect that we are examining or bearing witness to a case rather than simply viewing a feature film. And yet there is no artificiality to this, it feels natural.
The only other film I've seen by Asghar Farhadi is his justly celebrated About Elly. I chose that one from the MIFF schedules a few years back on the strength of its synopsis. In that film, a woman goes missing from a holidaying group of friends, possibly drowned and their best (and sometimes worst) intentions come out for some intriguing and ugly play. Like A Separation, while there is some levity, the gravity of every word is observed as it falls from the tongue, the damage it might do constantly on our minds.
While this would work well as melodrama the choice here is to veer from that closed system of sin and redemption and allow the unnervingly unguarded forces of these people, their values and tight constraints to work their own chaos. The only apparent control is our view of it through the microscope. This might not appeal as a night at the movies but it has rewards greater than those on the entire screen populations of any multiplex. While those popcorn feasts are true cinema, perhaps even purer when you consider the primary historical use to which cinema has always been put, this is rather possible cinema, the difference between representing Sydney Harbour as a Ken Done teatowel or a closeup of the rust on the Bridge. With one, you can happily join in, knowing how goofy it is and enjoying it anyway, with the latter, you spend time up close, get fascinated and leave haunted.