FILM Like the Olympics, albeit on a less rigid schedule, the perceived hotspot for evolving cinematic art tends to migrate every few years. Recently we've seen the likes of Romania and South Korea thrust into that rarefied limelight, just as decades earlier it had been Italy, France, Japan, or Sweden. Their moment usually occurs when a new generation of filmmakers with shared stylistic and/or political concerns impact as a collective force, reinvigorating the national cinema while making a splash on the international festival and art house circuits.
Iran has had a particularly long vogue, one that officially commenced with Abbas Kiarostami's Where is the Friend's Home? in 1987 and has only ebbed slightly in the quarter-century since. Contextualized by knowledge of the difficulties their makers have experienced enduring censorship and even imprisonment under the Islamic Republic's strictures on free expression, it's hard not to admire the rigor and range of their work — even if by the same token, expressing ambivalence toward it becomes a political and intellectual faux pas seldom allowed in polite circles. Partly to circumvent the censors, Iranian directors (excluding those making seldom-exported lighter entertainments intended solely for domestic audiences) have leaned heavily toward neo-realist poverty dramas, obtuse minimalist poetics, and stories about those typically least-objectionable protagonists, children. Only a philistine would say that many of these movies might reasonably strike a viewer as aridly uninvolving, tedious, or too precious. But there, I just said it.
Therefore it's especially rewarding — even more so when fellow award magnets like 2011's The Tree of Life and Melancholia are so aesthetically elaborate yet amorphous in narrative shape — to have an Iranian film like A Separation, which is both clear and complex in ways most directly connected to audience engagement. The country's first movie to win Berlin's Golden Bear (as well as all its acting awards), this domestic drama reflecting a larger socio-political backdrop is subtly well-crafted on all levels, but most of all demonstrates the unbeatable virtue of having an intricately balanced, reality-grounded screenplay — director Asghar Farhadi's own — as bedrock.
A sort of confrontational impartiality is introduced immediately, as our protagonists Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) face the camera — or rather the court magistrate — to plead their separate cases in her filing for divorce, which he opposes. We gradually learn that their 14-year wedlock isn't really irreparable, the feelings between them not entirely hostile. The roadblock is that Simin has finally gotten permission to move abroad, a chance she thinks she must seize for the sake of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But Nader doesn't want to leave the country — for one thing, his senile father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) can hardly be uprooted — and is not about to let his only child go without him.