Review: 2012 Oscar winner “A Separation” was a glorious surprise

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Earlier this week, I mentioned director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” a film inexplicably un-nominated in last year’s Best Foreign Language Film category. While that is a travesty, Farhadi did win once before, in 2012, with “A Separation.” Here is my four-star Buffalo News review of that great film.

The universally and justifiably praised Iranian film “A Separation” begins with a lengthy one-take shot of a man and woman facing the camera. They are Nader and Simin, and they are husband and wife.

Facing a judge, Simin explains why she would like to be granted a divorce. Her husband is a good man, she says, but they have finally been granted visas to leave the country, and Nader refuses to leave Iran.

Nader’s reason is simple. His aging father suffers from Alzheimer’s. He needs him. But then, of course, there is the couple’s daughter, Termeh. What’s best for her? Two parents, in Iran? Or one parent elsewhere?

This is moral dilemma No. 1 in Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” and it’s an indicator of what’s to come. And — it isn’t. For even though the couple’s marriage crisis constitutes the back story of the film, it becomes just one element of a dense, mysterious fabric.

How rare in this world of Twitter, spoiler-mad trailers and preview screening reviews to see a film that genuinely surprises. This, especially, makes “A Separation” a wonder, a knowing, moving, infinitely entertaining drama that might be the most morally complex film ever made.

Peyman Moaadi plays Nader, and as the film opens, he is trying to find someone to care for his father during the day. Meanwhile, Simin (Leila Hatami), prepares to leave the apartment for her mother’s, and daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) watches with increasing sadness.

The stressed but level-headed Nader finds a caregiver, Razieh, who is always accompanied by her wide-eyed daughter. But the job is a difficult one. Nader’s father is not well, and Razieh faces questions involving her faith (is it a sin for her to clean the elderly man?) and strength (she is several months pregnant).

As Razieh struggles — we later meet her hot-tempered, unemployed husband Houjat, played by Shahab Hosseini — Nader and Termeh attempt to grow accustomed to their new life. Director Farhadi’s observations are keen, such as Nader’s unawareness of what setting Simin used on the washing machine.

And then something happens involving Nader and Razieh, and like the rest of the film, defining exactly what that “something” is — is not easy. Let’s call it an accident, one that seismically alters the rest of the film.

It causes “A Separation” to become a very, very different type of film than what we expected. Suddenly, the possible divorce of Nader and Simin is much less important, and the law becomes involved.

The dialogue is natural and believable, with simple utterances — “What’s wrong is wrong no matter who says what”; “The law doesn’t care about this”; “I have doubts”; “Did you lie?” — taking on profound meaning.

Also natural is Farhadi’s style of filmmaking. It is not flashy, or hurried, and it adds another layer of meaning to the moral mess we’re confronted with. There are no real villains, or heroes, for that matter. Even Razieh’s husband Houjat, while awfully unhinged, is not purely a bad man.

It will surprise some that politics and religion are not central to this story. They are always hovering, of course, and late in the film we are reminded just how strong a role Islam plays in the characters’ lives. But what makes “A Separation” a real high point in the fascinating, bold world of modern Iranian cinema is its sheer universality. You’ll identify, and have an opinion, too.

Farhadi faced numerous struggles in getting the film made, and initially, the project was banned. But the result is a masterpiece, one deservedly honored as Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars earlier this week, as well as at several international film festivals (it screened in Toronto last fall). If there was any justification, Farhadi and his two leads would have been in the Academy Awards’ race, as well.

“A Separation” gets to the heart of both marriage and parenthood, and it does so in entertaining and involving fashion. That it also provides an unprejudiced window into a country and a culture very different from our own is doubly impressive.

What a wonderful film this is, and what a bold, fresh cinematic experience.