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"A Separation," the flawlessly conceived Iranian film just honored with the Oscar as the best foreign-language movie of the year, reveals itself in deliberate and graceful motions throughout. But first, a divorce hearing. Simin (the striking Leila Hatami) sits before an unseen judge to state her case for leaving Nader (Peyman Moadi), at her side. After years of trying, they received visas allowing the family to move abroad. She hopes her daughter can grow up under different conditions (she doesn't specify what about Iran vexes her, even when the judge presses). Meanwhile, Nader refuses to leave his father, who is stricken with Alzheimer's. They argue. The judge waves them off, saying their problems don't warrant divorce.
Simin moves out to live with her parents, and with that a chain of small events is triggered. Without her in the house, Nader has to hire a caregiver for the ailing father. He settles on Razieh, a young mother with wide eyes, a delightful young daughter and a baby bump beneath her flowing garments. She is devout; when Nader's father soils himself, the caregiver places a phone call to ask a religious authority whether undressing and cleaning him would constitute a sin. She's also overwhelmed. Squeezed by her lengthy commute, household chores, watching her daughter and keeping tabs on the wandering old man, she makes a mistake — and from there, more and greater problems mount. Her husband, a fiery, indebted cobbler played by Shahab Hosseini, comes to the fore, and clashes with Nader.
Made for a half-million bucks last year by writer/director Asghar Farhadi, and released to gushing worldwide acclaim, the Persian-language "A Separation" must by this point be straining under its plaudits. It breaks the template of lauded international hits; it doesn't take place during wartime, or in some distant historical epoch. Its settings are, by any stretch, mundane — cramped courtrooms, an ample apartment, the occasional other office or home or car. The families depicted are neither prominent nor politically important. This is, at its heart, a family drama, albeit one rendered with the precision and craftsmanship of an espionage thriller. The dialogue and editing, both uncommonly taut, tease out the story gently while concealing the force they're building. The questions of who knew what when, and how, take on an urgency rarely seen in films about feuds. Even at more than two hours, this is tight moviemaking at its finest. Whatever "A Separation" has won, it has earned.
No small part of its power comes from its performances, which are brilliant across the board. The ensemble turns out to have an unlikely linchpin in the 11-year-old daughter at the center of Simin and Nader's conflict. As both mother and father prove capable of shady judgment and petty power plays, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) is dragged through their every misstep. American audiences are accustomed to seeing children play the part of the rope in divorce tug-of-wars, at least since "Kramer v. Kramer" was named Best Picture in 1979. That was the same year the Islamic revolution made Iran a perpetual foil to the United States, at turns an enemy, at turns a target. The higher promise of "A Separation" is not just in its adroitness as a story, but as a cultural sample of a country that Americans speak blithely of nuking. Modern Iran is surely no less conflicted than the America of the late '70s, and just as social forces pressed upon the Kramers, so do economics, religion and politics mold the characters of "A Separation." But in this glimpse of modern Iran, the families are so instantly recognizable and engaging that borders evaporate. This is Axis of Evil cinema to render that phrase blessedly absurd.