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For Your Consideration: 'A Separation'

Iran, of course, is regularly in the headlines, but how much do you know about Iran and its people? One gets a profound glimpse in the latest film by director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, again using his own screenplay. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, the film follows the struggles of a couple, Simin and Nader, who are trying to work out the details of their divorce. The wife wants to leave Iran, but the husband will not give permission for their daughter to go with her, feeling he has to stay in Iran because he is taking care of his father, who has Alzheimer's. When his wife moves out, the stressed-out Nader hires a poor woman, Razieh, to make the long commute from her home to his to take care of his father. An altercation, caused by the many frustrating details of the families' situations, lands Nader and Razieh in court, where a judge tries to sort out their complaints, relating to Nader's alleged assault on Razieh, and her subsequent miscarriage (treated as a murder under Iranian law), and Razieh's alleged neglect of Nader's father.

Iranian film, once vital, has been brought back under tight control by the government in recent years: Abbas Kiarostami made his most recent movie, the bewitching Copie conforme, in Italy with European actors. At least two other Iranian filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, have ended up in jail. Asghar Farhadi, who has remained in Iran, made A Separation on a budget estimated at less than a million dollars, with no funding received from the Iranian government, although it was Iran's sponsored entry in the Best Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. It is impossible to know how much the story's details were shaped by pressure, explicit or implicit, to conform to the government's demands. The picture of Iran that it gives, however, is both familiar and unexpected, and it does not necessarily portray the government in a favorable light. It is a film that deserved a spot in the Best Picture category of the Academy Awards more than some of the less deserving ones that were nominated. It may have the advantage in one or both of the categories for which it was nominated, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

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There are class and cultural divides in Iran, embodied in the conflict between Nader (played with piercing-eyed intensity by Peyman Moaadi), who works in a bank, and Razieh and her hot-headed and mostly unemployed and unemployable husband, Houjat (a ferocious performance by Shahab Hosseini). The middle-class couple are more secular than the people who come to work for them: Simin, played with intelligence and conviction by Leila Hatami, keeps her red hair barely covered by a scarf most of the time, driving a car and living quite indepedently, while Razieh (the serious Sareh Bayat) is often enveloped in the body-covering chadar and places earnest cell phone calls to religious authorities to see if she is breaking any religious law by some of her actions. At one point, Nader insists that his daughter, Termeh, use classical Farsi words in her vocabulary homework, rather than Arabic words that have crept into Persian.

Family and the concerns of women are guarded assiduously in ways that might surprise American viewers, as Nader takes care not even to shock Razieh's little girl, Somayeh, played with precocious mischief by Kimia Hosseini. The problems of both families become serious, however, when their attempt to keep matters free of official involvement fails and they end up in front of a series of cold Iranian judges in the grimy rooms of nondescript administrative buildings. On one hand justice is carried out with impartial fairness: Simin and Nader must come to agreement upon the terms of their divorce before it will be allowed to happen, and the two of them argue their views looking directly at the camera, as if the viewer is the judge, in a striking opening scene. Once the court is involved in these cases, however, the wheels of justice set in motion cannot be stopped. The thing that both Simin and Nader want to avoid most of all, causing pain to their daughter, played with gentle calm and stillness by the director's daughter, Sarina Farhadi, in a winning debut, is made inevitable by their inability to live with one another. It is a human tragedy that transcends national and religious boundaries.

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