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Review: 'A Separation' is a great family drama

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
December 30, 2011 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) are a modern, well-to-do, intellectual and cosmopolitain couple.
Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Maadi) are a modern, well-to-do, intellectual and cosmopolitain couple.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "A Separation" is one of the front-runners for best foreign language film
  • Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple in trouble
  • Moadi, Hatami and Bayat are all deeply convincing and moving actors

(CNN) -- As I've written on various top 10 lists (and mentioned to anyone who will listen) Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" is an exceptional film.

It has been picking up awards since winning the Golden Bear at its world premiere at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival and is one of the front-runners for best foreign language film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married couple in trouble. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband and daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but Nader refuses to leave his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi). As a result, Simin sues Nader for divorce. But unless Nader either agrees to a divorce or permits Simin and Termeh to go without one, Simin cannot leave the country with her daughter.

Nader refuses to give his permission and Simin moves out, choosing to live with her parents while continuing to try and get her husband to agree to either come with them or allow Termeh to go. However, it's not clear that their daughter even wants to leave and she chooses to stay with her father when Simin leaves.

"A Separation" is a family drama, a mystery and an exploration of modern Iranian society. It's a deeply political film that hides its politics in every day occurrences. It's also a story that on some levels could be played out in any society and yet it reads as a very Iranian tale. This is a society about which Americans know very little yet one that is, on the surface, easy to relate to.

Nader and Simin appear to be relatively secular. They are a modern, well-to-do, intellectual and cosmopolitan couple. So when Nader hires Razieh, a deeply religious, working class woman to care for his father who has advanced Alzheimer's, it sets in motion a rather unexpected whodunit of sorts.

Razieh is repeatedly presented with dilemmas that challenge her faith and require her to call her spiritual adviser for guidance. For example, while her religion forbids her to touch a man who is not her husband, she is caring for an elderly and sick man. Surely she is allowed a dispensation for charitable or compassionate works? While her Imam assures her that this is indeed acceptable, the situation proves too much for Razieh who suggests to Nader that her unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahib Hosseini) might be a better fit.

Unfortunately, Hodjat is arrested for being in debt before he can start work and Razieh must return. From day one she seems, for lack of a better word, squirrely. She's obviously hiding something from Nader and when he returns to the apartment one day to find his father non-responsive, on the floor and tied to the bed, he loses his temper and things go pear shaped.

Here's where the mystery kicks in and things get complicated, but to reveal any more would deprive you of watching this film unfold. While the relationship between Nader and Simit is still front and center, so too is the story behind what happened to Nader's father and the aftermath. Who is lying and why? Who did what to whom? The answers to those questions lie in explorations of Iran's social, religious and political customs and serve to deepen the emotions that run through this film.

I feel like a broken record, heaping praise on "A Separation," but I really can't find anything wrong with it. My natural instinct is to try and bring some sort of balance to a review. Find a crack in the armor of a great film or some small bit of light in a dreadful one, but there is really nothing to criticize here and I get the feeling that upon a second viewing, it may rise even higher in my various top 10 lists.

Moadi, Hatami and Bayat are all deeply convincing and moving actors. A true strength of an actor's performance is when the viewer doesn't understand a word of dialog and is still moved. Farhadi's direction and screenplay (the final 10 minutes of the film is among the best endings I've ever seen) combined with the brilliant work done by the performers, make this one of the truly great films of this year or any other.

A Separation is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It contains some family dynamics of an emotional nature.

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