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Screens & Tech

Critic's Pick: 'A Separation' wins Oscar for Best Foreign Film

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

As A Separation — this year’s Academy Award and Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Film—  begins, a middle-class husband and wife face the camera and plead their cases to an unseen magistrate. Simin (Hatami) seeks a divorce because her husband of 14 years, Nader (Maadi), refuses to emigrate with her and their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. Nader insists on remaining in Iran to care for his father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Rejecting Simin’s request and advising her to accept her lot, the magistrate explains: “My finding is that your problem is a small problem.”

Nothing that is human is alien to cinematic art, and no problem is too small to escape the attention of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. As Humphrey Bogart noted, the problems of three little people — in this case, Simin, Nader, and Termeh —  don't amount to a hill of beans, but when the beans are human beings, that hill becomes a mountain. A separation produces unexpected consequences. Leaving her husband — and Termeh — and moving in with her mother, Simin recommends hiring Razieh (Bayat) to care for Nader’s father while Nader is at work during the day. A devout Muslim whose pregnancy is not apparent beneath her chador, Razieh introduces further legal and ethical complications that ultimately lead us back to the cramped, drab quarters of a weary magistrate and the difficult quest to sift out the truth. Ambiguities over the miscarriage of a fetus compound the possibilities of a miscarriage of justice.

Various characters face charges of abuse, theft, and murder. But who among the witnesses is lying? Should a financial settlement spare the accused from prison? The film ends as it begins, with the viewer forced into the position of rendering judgment, in a case that grows more complex with each frame.

Long takes and restrained performances reinforce the sense that we are eavesdropping on a domestic ordeal, not watching a movie. Refusing to distract us from the immediacy of small problems on the big screen, A Separation is refreshingly free of anything but ambient sound. Like the Italian Neorealists, Iranian filmmakers tend to be virtuosos of budgetary and narrative economy. To avoid censorship and incarceration, they excel at nuance and indirection. Simin never explains exactly why she would want to leave the Islamic Republic of Iran, though the film is not likely to encourage tourism to Tehran, except to its movie theaters. Just before removing his father’s clothes, Nader closes the door in front of the camera, forcing us to respect his privacy. Without nudity, blasphemy, or calumny, Farhadi positions us within the dense, ambiguous textures of deceit that constitute these daily lives.

★★★★ (out of 5 stars)

A Separation

Writ. & dir. Asghar Farhadi; feat. Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini (PG-13)

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