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On movies: 'A Separation' brings together complex relations

a separation movie poster

From the first moments of “A Separation,” which opens with tempers flaring in the unwelcoming confines of a judge’s chambers in Tehran, it appears that Simin and Nader are headed inexorably for divorce.

Simin, a teacher, has an opportunity to emigrate from Iran to the West and she wants her husband, Nader, and their daughter, Termeh, to go with her. She sees emigration as a particular opportunity for the bright, inquisitive daughter, on the cusp of adolescence and eager to learn about the rest of the world.

Nader, who has a good job in a bank, refuses to leave Tehran, saying he cannot abandon his severely demented father, who is virtually helpless and barely recognizes his son. Nader refuses to put his father into a home, as Simin suggests. As so often happens, nobody is right; nobody is wrong.

Simin, in anger and frustration at Nader’s refusal, moves out of the family apartment to her mother’s house. The daughter reluctantly chooses to stay with her father. The girl is devastated by having to make the choice, and we understand and sympathize.

More hard human choices will follow in “A Separation,” a richly textured, remarkably well acted movie from Iran that uses the story of a marital split to open the door to a compelling, highly dramatic examination of such issues as pride, honor, gender, generation, religion and class.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, “A Separation” has been nominated for two Academy Awards – best foreign-language film and best original screenplay. It is one of the best movies of the past year.

I’ll avoid going too deeply into the plot, which is intricate and full of little surprises and mysteries, evasions, half-lies and conflicting memories. Briefly, Nader discovers he desperately needs someone to look after his helpless father during the day. He hires a poor woman named Razieh, the wife of an unemployed shoemaker. Razieh -- who also has to take care of her own young daughter and make two-hour bus trips to get from her poor neighborhood to Nader’s middle-class one -- cannot handle the job. She tries to quit, she and Nader fight, and bad things happen.

Then Hodjat, Razieh’s hotheaded husband, an uneducated Muslim fundamentalist who already dislikes and resents Nader for class and religious reasons, is added to the mix, and it becomes volatile, like the complex, contentious society it represents. Hodjat is intemperate and unreasonable, and yet the filmmaker leads us to understand the forces that are driving him. Even Hodjat is as much a victim as a villain, if in part a victim of his own male pride.

What evolves is a feud on two levels,  between the two families, and within them.

In one sense, “A Separation” is site specific to Iran and more narrowly to Tehran, a crowded, jangling metropolis where the modern mixes with the medieval in a myriad of contradictory ways, with women in burkhas weaving their way through traffic jams of sleek European sedans.

In another sense, the issues “A Separation” treats in such a deeply humanistic way, the characters it portrays and the dilemmas it presents, are universal. And the acting and directing are so skillful and unpretentious, it is impossible not to empathize with the two couples and in particular with their daughters, trapped in the middle of an increasingly bitter feud they didn’t start and are helpless to end.

Opens Friday Feb. 17

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