OSTENSIBLY A FILM about the separation of a wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), from her husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), A Separation quietly spans a much greater field of inquiry. With Hitchcockian pacing, this Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi spirals out to explore the ripple effects of Simin's push for independence: Without being overtly political, Farhadi's created a revealing portrait of contemporary Iranian life, its central questions relevant to any society.
Beginning with a judge's denial of Simin's divorce request—she wants to leave Iran with their daughter Termeh (the director's own daughter, Sarina Farhadi), while Nader wants to remain to care for his ailing father, and Termeh's refusal to join her mother is an attempt to keep her parents together—Simin's departure from the household to live with her parents sets off unforeseeable drama. Nader, on Simin's recommendation, hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor, extremely devout woman, to care for his Alzheimer's-plagued father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) while he's at work. Desperately in need of the money but overwhelmed by the task, Razieh ends up tying the old man to his bed while she runs an important errand. Upon Nader's discovery, a confrontation ensues, culminating in his shoving of Razieh out the apartment door. The following day she miscarries, opening an escalating tangle of legal procedure, accusations, customs, and half-truths. Throughout the mess overhangs the tension between Simin and Nader, which we are not quite allowed to forget is still foremost in Termeh's young eyes.
Without a perceptively political motive, Farhadi presents the matter-of-fact daily realities of a chaotic, institutionally sexist legal system as well as the cultural juxtapositions between the lower and middle classes, and the secular and devout. As these layers steadily build in complexity, so too does the audience's investment in its characters—a development that only fully registers when the film ends even more poignantly with the same simple, central question it opened with.