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Movie Review: A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

Film feels foreign, yet familiar
A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 123 min
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material)
Release Date: 2011-12-30
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

I don't know how to tell you about "A Separation."

If I say the Oscar-winning foreign film is a marital drama - and a talky one, though full of good talk - you may balk at a night spent among subtitles.

If I pitch it as a movie about manslaughter, heartbreak and assertions of honor - which it also is - I make it seem like a classy soap opera.

Shall I say it'll be familiar to anyone who has endured a protracted breakup, cared for a failing parent or raised a middle-schooler? So it is. Yet every time it starts to feel like something we have known, we realize how unlike us these Iranian characters are.

Writer-director-producer Asghar Farhadi begins with a simple, if brutal, dilemma.

Simin (Leila Hatami) goes sadly to court to get a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi). Simin wishes to give their 11-year-old daughter a better life by emigrating, an idea that perplexes the unseen judge. Nader reluctantly agrees to let her go, but he won't allow her to take their child. He can't leave himself, because he's caring for an utterly incapable father with Alzheimer's disease.

From this seed of discontent grows a tree of misery. When Simin moves in with her parents, Nader hires the droopy Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for the old man. She does so haphazardly, and he fires her, literally shoving her out of his house. When she goes to a hospital and learns her 4-month-old fetus is dead, she tells hot-tempered husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) it's Nader's fault.

Farhadi can be intentionally vague about plot: Unless I missed some exposition, he never settles the question of who stole money from Nader. Yet he's specific about everything else, from the daughter's discomfort at having to choose between her parents to the serpentine legal case.

That's where "A Separation" seems most foreign: Plaintiffs regularly drop in at a judge's office to harangue the person in charge; blood money can be offered to offended parties in lieu of jail time. There's a weird, almost Kafkaesque casualness to the legal proceedings, as the judge slogs uninterestedly and often clumsily toward a verdict.

Though our sympathies begin with Nader and Simin, we start to feel pity for the eternally angry Hodjat and passive-aggressive Razieh - not because those two are more right or honest, but because we can see they've been victims all their lives. Their perennial, failed struggle for financial independence and respect has left them bitter, likely to tilt the truth to suit themselves without even realizing what they're doing.

The story has no winners, and the daringly ambiguous ending defies simple conclusions. Even the title can be taken multiple ways: Besides the physical separation from his wife, Nader is also drawing away unwillingly from his father and daughter. We can be sure only of one thing: Accidents can turn the lives of decent people upside down, whether they speak Persian or English or Esperanto.

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3/02/2012 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

If I say the Oscar-winning foreign film is a marital drama - and a talky one, though full of good talk - you may balk at a night spent among subtitles.

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