How to Subvert the Censors 

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A Separation
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Have Iranian censors gotten sloppy? I suppose they might consider A Separation a straightforward domestic drama; it could certainly pass as one. But to these Western eyes, this shaky cam melodrama, this soap opera for sophisticates, is implicitly critical of its country, an indictment of systemic oppression. Yet it wasn't smuggled out of the country in a USB drive—it's Iran's official submission for the best foreign film Oscar.

Nader's wife (Leila Hatami) leaves him in the film's first scene, so he (Peyman Moaadi) hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his senile father. But there are... problems, which escalate until each side has leveled potentially devastating legal charges against the other. (Much of the movie takes place in a "courtroom," which looks more like the cramped office of a low-level Western bureaucrat.) The title's meaning seems manifold: the characters' allegiances perpetually realign, a la Carnage; people who love each other suddenly become emotionally alienated. Structured as "a detective story without any detectives," as director Asghar Farhadi has said, A Separation is captivating in its knotty plotting, like a TV drama streamlined into feature length.

The documentary-style camera work and the naturalistic acting (by an extraordinary ensemble) magnify the movie's moral complexity. Farhadi avoids contriving heroes and villains: every character is sympathetic, stuck in some pitiable position, doing the wrong thing by trying to do what seems right for their families and selves. There are no bad guys; if the movie has a malevolent force, it's Iran itself. Relentlessly bleak, the movie raises an obvious question: maybe it's not just these few ordinary people who're fucked but their whole society—its unemployment, its limited options, its arcane laws, its haphazard and inconsistent legal processes? (Free Jafar Panahi!) Wait for the sly subversiveness of the film's final shot, a courthouse hallway in all its abject misery—sourly lighted, filled with shouting and dejection. It's no coincidence that it's in a government building, is it?

Opens December 30

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