Dir. Asghar Farhadi
(2011, PG-13, 123 min)

A Separation is about a group of generally decent people who make harmful decisions for what they believe are the right reasons. In its opening scene, we meet Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi), who are before a judge at the start of divorce proceedings. She wants to leave Iran for America, but he wants to stay to care for his father, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. From there I expected a political film about Western versus Iranian values, gender dynamics, and religion. But the film’s approach is more personal than political, considering human nature rather than a cultural system. It’s not a polemical film with Something To Say About The Way Things Are. That these characters reside in Iran seems more a matter of geography than of central thematic intent.

The judge rejects Simin’s request for a divorce, so she moves back in with her parents, prompting Nader to hire a caretaker for his father. Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is given the job on Simin’s recommendation despite being poorly qualified, pregnant, and deeply religious; many of the tasks involved in the old man’s care are forbidden by her faith. But she needs the money for her husband, Houjat (Shahab Hosseini), who has lost his job as a cobbler and is hounded by creditors. One day, she abandons her responsibilities in the middle of the day for unknown reasons, enraging Nader. After a heated confrontation, Razieh miscarries her baby, and Nader is charged with murder.

Did Nader push Razieh down a flight of stairs? Did he even know she was pregnant? I found myself in sympathy with Nader, but then less and less as he fights to clear his name. His story changes, sometimes mid-sentence. He lies. He makes counter-accusations that can’t be verified. He wants to avoid jail to take care of his father and 10-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but there seems to be a denial that runs deeper. He will not accept responsibility, he says, until it is proven to him that he is guilty, but I think he’s also trying to prove to himself that he’s innocent.

Children are caught in the crossfire, and they bear the greatest burden. A small but pivotal moment comes late in the film when Termeh shares a glance with Razieh and Houjat’s young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), and all at once our focus shifts to them. Termeh, in particular, is forced to carry the weight of decisions she should not have to make. But the film is not just about the children, or their parents, or their cultures, or their economic classes. It’s about the collision of all of those things. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi assumes no single point of view and comes to no particular conclusion. The film’s strong emotional effect comes from the way we sympathize, to some extent, with all parties. Their behavior is understandable, if not always honorable. There are no heroes or villains. Nobody wins. Everybody loses.