One of the many things that distinguish an extraordinary filmmaker from the merely ordinary is that the former doesn’t just stage scenes — he uses the flow of psychology and dialogue and camera movement to lure us inside scenes, to place us almost physically at the center of what we’re watching. Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian writer-director of the great new movie A Separation, has that kind of talent. From the opening moments, in which Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a middle-class husband and wife in Tehran, stare right into the camera — i.e., at a divorce-court judge — as they make an embattled plea to end their marriage, the film wraps us, with stunning directness, in the complex folds of its characters’ passions.
The two are grappling with an issue they can’t resolve. Simin wants to leave Iran to provide what she thinks will be a better life for their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Nader insists on staying in the country to care for his Alzheimer’s afflicted father. When their divorce request gets turned down, the two agree to a trial separation. The daughter stays on with Nader, and he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a woman from a remote working-class suburb, to help look after his father. What unfolds over the next couple of days seems banal enough: a dereliction of duty; an argument; an irritated shove. Yet from these relatively unsensational interactions, A Separation evolves into the most organic of thrillers. It’s a drama — of marital strife, class warfare, and even murder — in which virtually everyone on screen turns out to be lying. As each deception is revealed, A Separation becomes a work of neorealism as tricky as a Rubik’s Cube. Yet Farhadi is no mere formalist. His film is a spiritual investigation into the rise of women and the descent of male privilege in Iran, and a look at the toll that has taken. In a movie of flawless acting, it is Moadi — terse, proud, angry, haunted — who shows us that rare thing: a soul in transition. A