The couple and their crumbling marriage at the center of the excellent Iranian drama A Separation are a small piece of a bigger picture. The movie isn't just about a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, right and wrong. It's also about complex societal and cultural restraints in a land where women are still required to wear a hijab in public.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are at a crossroads in their marriage. Simin wants to move their 11-year-old daughter Termeh to a country where there are more opportunities for women, but Nader wants to stay in Tehran to take care of his Alzheimer's-stricken father. And he wants Termeh to live with him.
After Simin's divorce request is shot down, she moves out of their middle-class home. Nader hires a devoutly religious housekeeper, Razieh, to take care of his ailing father while he's at work. One thing leads to another, and soon Razieh and Nader are before a judge: She accuses him of murder, he accuses her of neglect, and things get messy.
Nader and Simin's breakup isn't always the focal point of A Separation, but it's constantly there, hanging over and affecting every scene and everything that happens. The separation takes its toll on both Nader and Simin, who still cares enough about her husband to bail him out of jail. But they're stubborn. And their convictions to their individual beliefs are stronger than whatever bond they once shared.
Writer and director Asghar Farhadi doesn't take sides. Nader and Simin have their reasons. They're both right. And they're both wrong. Mostly shot with objective, observing hand-held cameras, A Separation documents the end of a marriage and the start of new lives for two people who've spent the past 14 years together. It's not painted with typical movie melodrama. It's matter-of-fact — occasionally devastating, sometimes infuriating, and always real.
Hatami and especially Moadi are terrific as the couple, neither one budging from their belief that they're doing the right thing for their family. It's a universal story that transcends all cultural differences. And perhaps that's A Separation's greatest achievement: It could take place in Paris, London, or Cleveland. When Simin moves out, she takes her favorite CD. Her friends give Nader shit about the breakup. And when Nader and Razieh's battle gets heated, Simin sees an opportunity to get Termah on her side.
Then Farhadi slaps us with the movie's fundamental reality: Things are different for women in Iran. They're different for Simin when the impatient divorce judge gives more weight to Nader's argument. And they're certainly different for Razieh after her secrets are revealed. But this is essentially a personal story about two people who've come to a critical point in their relationship. There's no tidy conclusion, no good guys or bad guys. Everyone's to blame, and everyone's a victim. It's so real. And so good.