Even before the opening credits of the fascinating, parable-like A Separation — winner of this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, and the first Iranian film to do so — the emotional dynamics of its characters present themselves, with layering and gray areas attached. In these early moments an aggrieved couple speaks heatedly directly at the audience — who takes on the subjective perspective of a legal party hearing out the plaintiffs — and pleads for a legal separation, the results of which spin off into the film’s tangled storyline and gnarly maze of characters.
As writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s tale moves forward, the plot, as they say, muddies and thickens in multiple directions. It also moves refreshingly away from the world of black-and-white characters as we become aware that moral quandaries and various shades of white lies are woven into the complex mesh of players in knotty family circles: an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father; a pregnant caretaker and her volatile, unemployed husband; the separating couple at the center; and a teenage daughter gently nudged into lying for a cause. Each character is essentially good, but pushed into corners of compromise, for the sake of self and family preservation.
Although shot in a coolly engaging and jangly, voyeuristic style, full of close-ups and documentary-esque sense of capturing life unfolding, A Separation is deceptively casual in its storytelling methods. We hear no music until the end credits, adding to the sense of our being set down into a real life family-legal drama. Yet, running beneath the everyday surfaces is a tautly structured film that moves organically from tension to tension in the overarching story and concludes with a soft sigh of a finale, as blissfully ambiguous as the opening scene is bracing.
Beyond its individualistic significance, A Separation is, more generally, yet another powerful affirmation of Iranian cinema as a reckoning force and formidable player on the world’s cinematic stage. Even as the socio-political tensions between Iran and the “outside world” heat up once again, said “outside world” gets empathetic and seemingly encoded humanistic messages in the form of cinema and other arts, made with lively style and poetic sensibilities.