Asghar Farhadi's understated feature spins a tale of domestic discord into a wide-reaching examination of Iranian society, leaving viewers with profound, subliminally administered insight.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married middle-class couple split over the issue of whether or not to move abroad. She argues that only a foreign upbringing would allow their daughter to realize her potential; he wants to stay put and care for his ailing father. Nader hires the poor and desperate Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to nurse him, but when Nader returns to find his neglected father hanging half-off his sickbed, he vents his outrage and pent-up frustration by shoving Razieh out the door. She subsequently miscarries, and the violence of his actions becomes the subject of a criminal investigation that throws the disparity between their families into stark relief. Razieh's husband, an unemployed cobbler, becomes nearly mad with rage, and the turmoil taxes Nader and Simin's already frayed marriage.
Farhadi's carefully devised tale brushes up against scores of pregnant themes, from parental responsibility to the future of Iran, but they're worked so deftly into the mix that A Separation never devolves into a message movie. Naturalism is too weak a word to encompass the achievement — it's a neo-realist equivalent of the Grand Unified Theory. You get the sense that any family, properly observed, could serve a similar function. The movie's drab style isn't on par with its substance, but it furthers the sense of a life captured with casual precision, by a camera that's always in the right place.
Although Farhadi never coaxes his cast, which includes several seasoned actors rarely seen on these shores, toward histrionics, the film functions as a highly effective melodrama, accruing a tragic sense of inevitability as it moves toward its melancholy conclusion. His characters are deliberately ordinary, but their stories take on the weight of myth.