Review: Oscar-winning film 'A Separation' is powerful art that entertains and informs

The crumbling marriage of Simin (Leila Hatami), left, and Nader (Peyman Moadi) drives the movie’s reflection of Iranian culture.
The crumbling marriage of Simin (Leila Hatami), left, and Nader (Peyman Moadi) drives the movie’s reflection of Iranian culture.
Published Feb. 29, 2012

A Separation (PG-13) (123 min.) - With all the saber rattling coming from Iran these days, it's possible to overlook the fact that ordinary people with complex problems live there, and they're a lot like us. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi focuses on such a household in A Separation, and deservedly won an Oscar for best foreign language film as a result.

Farhadi tells the story of Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), whose marriage is on the brink of failure. Simin wants to leave Iran with her teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), seeking a more stable, less volatile environment. Nader wants to stay, devoted to his country and caring for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

In Iran's culture the solution could be a divorce but those are difficult to get approved, as Farhadi depicts in a striking, single-take opening scene, with the couple pleading their cases directly to the camera. We are to be the judge they're addressing, as the situation grows more complex.

Nader reluctantly agrees to a trial separation, hiring Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as caretaker for his father while he goes to work. Simin goes to live with relatives, sharing custody of Termeh with her husband. Razieh is unprepared to handle the father's needs, and she's pregnant.

These factors collide, leaving the father unattended. Nader angrily confronts Razieh, resulting in an accidental death and a murder charge. Not to mention the wrath of Razieh's husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who didn't know she was working for Nader. Iran's male-dominated culture fuels Farhadi's drama, with women seeking autonomy and men blocking it out of pride and tradition.

Farhadi's even-handed approach to the situation gives A Separation a kind of Rashomon effect, with each character having his or her own version of events, and the truth muddled somewhere in between. It's a mystery wrapped inside an enigmatic nation, flawlessly acted and difficult to predict. I'm always impressed when a movie informs about a foreign culture while it entertains, and this one is powerful art in that regard.

A Separation is shown with English subtitles, opening Friday exclusively at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg. A

Steve Persall, Times movie critic