In French director Claude Lelouch’s segment of 11’9’’01, a distraught woman writes to her departing boyfriend, “the end of a couple is the end of the world.” Indeed, lovers make themselves the center of the universe, labeling shared emotions/experiences as completely singular and special. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, a meticulously written and masterfully performed Iranian drama currently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, charts the extended moment this complex dynamic confirms its own death. A slow motion dive of a film, A Separation reveals resonance and tragedy in the small details of compromise and miscommunication, a process that is invariably hard to watch at times.
The opening scene confirms the disillusionment of any romantic notions: Nader (Peyman Moaadi) argues with his wife Simin (Leila Hatami) during an official divorce hearing. The slightly wobbly camera faces them directly, connecting the audience with the unseen Iranian official overseeing their dispute. Without the luxury of a film cut, the observational aesthetic listens to the pair’s bickering, establishing back story and subtext by simply sharing space with this couple on the verge. A compromise can’t be reached, and then bitter silence.
From here, A Separation examines the devastating ripples caused by Nader and Simin’s matrimonial fissure, including its effect on their young teenage daughter Termeh (Sarin Farhadi). Every decision has a weight that cannot be denied, every moment a sense of sadness that only the deeply broken-hearted can understand. The family’s home life flirts with stability when Nader hires a maid named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his aging father. Yet this shift only complicates an already volatile situation, and an argument between Nader and Razieh turns A Separation into a intimate pressure-cooker of tension.
The less said about A Separation’s story specifics the better, but it’s handling of human indecision and rationalization is unflinchingly sharp. As each character gets sucked into an ethical vortex of their own making, Farhadi’s unobtrusive camera watches from a variety of distances, balancing the weight of tragedy and melancholy in equal measure. Time slows down to an unforgiving crawl, almost to the point where its hard to quantify minutes, hours, or days. This is what happens when the world ends.
If you’re going to see one film this week in preparation for February 26’s Oscar telecast, make it A Separation. It’s not only the best of the Foreign Film bunch, but one of the great films in recent memory.