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With: Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Merila Zare'i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr
Written by: Asghar Farhadi
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material
Language: Persian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 123
Date: 02/15/2011

A Separation (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Domestic Disputes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Longtime and loyal readers know that I am a fan of Iranian cinema. I saw my first Iranian film, Gabbeh, back in 1997 and I have been seen some 50 of them since then; in a culture of repression and censorship, certain filmmakers have found amazing ways to express personal and poetic visions. I'm always happy when one of these films goes beyond a small circle of cinephiles. For example, the great director Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, Certified Copy, recently won the Best Foreign Language Film award from my group, the San Francisco Film Critic's Circle. (Although, to be fair, it was not made in Iran.)

Now another Iranian film seems to be getting plenty of mainstream critical notice, including the coveted #1 spot on Roger Ebert's top ten list of 2011 as well as a Golden Globe nomination. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation is a fine film, but to be perfectly honest, it's not one of the better examples of Iranian cinema I've ever seen. It has an external layer that comments upon Iran's complex and seemingly unfair divorce system, as well as other social customs, but underneath it's not much more than a standard potboiler. It could have been ripped from the pages of a dime store novel.

The movie begins with a single shot, a court appearance between a husband, Nader (Peyman Moaadi), and a wife Simin (Leila Hatami, also in the excellent Deserted Station). She wants to leave the country to find a better life for them and their 11 year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). He wants to stay, mainly to look after his aged, senile father. Too stubborn to agree, they separate. Nader must hire someone to look after the old man while he's at work, and he finds Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She's a poor woman whose husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), is desperately in debt.

Nader comes home one day to find his father fallen on the floor and Razieh nowhere in sight. She turns up, making vague excuses. Enraged, he throws her out, and she tumbles down the stairs. It turns out she was pregnant and has now lost the baby. The husband blames Nader, and thus begins a complicated mystery of who knew what, and when. Iranian pride and cultural leanings prevent certain characters from disclosing certain information, but Farhadi tips his hand with a clumsy scene that ends abruptly and for obvious reasons.

I have seen one of Farhadi's previous films, Fireworks Wednesday (2006), which I like a great deal better. It, too, is a kind of mystery, but smoother and leaner; it unfolds over the course of one day, with less social commentary and more emphasis on visuals. With A Separation, Farhadi's skill is still apparent; he's good at doling out details a little at a time and never giving away too much at once. He's also good at giving each of his characters genuine humanity. Even the angry, poor husband Hodjat gets a reasonable point of view. He's not just a crazy villain.

I suppose my real hangup here is that, while this good film gets plenty of notice, genuine masterpieces are going unseen. The fact is that A Separation has real distribution, and a lot of critics were given chances to see it, whereas Fireworks Wednesday did not enjoy that same advantage. That's sad, but it's certainly not the fault of A Separation; if you've never seen any other Iranian films, this will be an excellent first choice. If you like it, definitely seek out more.
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