A Separation plays on Saturday and Sunday at the 49th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically on December 30.
The writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation opens in an Iranian courtroom—like the other courtrooms we see in the film, it looks like an old elementary-school classroom, all hard and once-bright tile—with husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) and wife Simin (Leila Hatami) bickering with each other and pleading their cases at hearing for their divorce position. The camera’s static, from the judge’s p.o.v., so that their imploring arguments seem to be directed at us—and so, for the remainder of the movie, we observe everyone’s perfectly rationally justified self-interest, as everything goes to hell.
With Simin back with her mother, at least for the time being, and their sweet, serious daughter Termeh (the filmmaker’s daughter Sarina Farhadi) trying to hold things together, Nader hires a caretaker for his father, stricken with Alzheimer’s—devout, flustered Razieh (Sareh Bayat) who takes the job without telling her hotheaded husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini in and out of debtor’s prison, and who doesn’t always have enough eyes to supervise her own small daughter. The film is a spiraling worst-case scenario for all the shameful little things you think you can get away without mentioning (and which Farhadi sometimes strategically elides): an inadvertent act of violence sees all brought before a magistrate, bringing charges and counter-charges, changing their stories and wheedling to witnesses, all the better to appear righteous in the eyes of both the law and each other, as the interlocking incidental details accrue in verité-style handheld, and slowly make clear the class, gender and religious divides in Iranian society.
The film is also harrowingly good at showing how parents, when under stress, treat their children the way they would treat an adult acting similarly, and the way granting autonomy can be a form of manipulation—a way of daring your child to defy you, and consolidating your authority. At one point, Nader tells his concerned, confused daughter that if she really thinks he’s at fault for the incident, he’ll accept responsibility before the courts—when he sees that she won’t, Moadi lets just the slightest smile play across his face.