MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Separation’ unique look at Iran, but audiences may be lost in translation

A Separation (NR)

3 out of 4 stars

The heavy favorite to win the upcoming Best Foreign Language Oscar, "A Separation" is a multi-layered melodrama from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi that is especially remarkable for what it doesn't include. There is only a fleeting mention of war, nothing regarding real politics and, despite subject matter that could be perceived as highly controversial and would surely upset many Muslim fundamentalists, has received the full backing and support of the ultraconservative Iranian government.

The movie has struck a chord with many audiences and most critics due to its universal themes and just how those themes are incorporated into what is largely regarded as an oppressive, male-dominated culture. The story is good, but if it had taken place in Europe, the Americas or even the Far East, it would not have likely garnered so much attention or praise.

Recognizing Iran is still in the Stone Age regarding women's rights, Simin (Leila Hatami, a dead ringer for Isabella Rossellini), is adamant to move out of the country in order afford her preteen daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) the opportunity for a life she never had. Simin had previously discussed this with her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) who had initially agreed but would now rather stay put and tend to the needs of his father, who is suffering with advanced Alzheimer's disease.

With neither spouse willing to bend, Simin sues her husband for divorce but because Nader has not abused or mistreated her or their daughter, the judge hearing their case dismisses it. In a move to apply pressure and make Nader blink, Simin moves out and in with her parents, leaving Nader the unenviable task of caring for Termeh, the home and his father while working full time.

Not without pity or empathy, Simin does see to it that Nader is given the opportunity to hire a maid/caretaker to pick up the slack. She is Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a dirt-poor, religiously devout sort who is trying to pick up the slack left by her longtime unemployed husband.

At this point you might feel that you've been given far too much plot detail, but everything mentioned thus far all takes place within the movie's first 15 minutes. For the next 100 or so minutes, the narrative expands and dovetails, turns back on itself and purposefully omits events or the knowledge of them by certain characters. Events that take place in the first act -- most of which are never seen by the audience -- return in the third and alters everyone's perspective -- and not always for the good.

Recalling Pedro Almadovar, John Cassavettes and Preston Sturgis, Farhadi is more than adept at plot and character development and tight story construction. Seemingly insignificant details that show up on the margins of the frames always come back in some form or fashion to service the story. Farhadi never wastes a single frame of film and, in a movie top-heavy with dialogue, is able to balance it with knowing, sometimes ominous silences. Farhadi's additional Best Original Screenplay nomination was largely deserved.

Although some might not agree, as the story drifts forward it starts to come off as a little too convenient and calculating. Certain events that initially seemed arbitrary are seen in hindsight as something else entirely. All of it makes sense and fits, but too often it feels artificial.

Depending on your own perspective, the final scene will either be oddly poetic or maddeningly incomplete. For a film that has told us everything for 120 minutes, it leaves us hanging in the final three.

Presented in Persian with English subtitles. (Sony Classics)