Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation begins with the eponymous event: After 14 years of marriage, one that yielded an 11-year-old daughter (Sarina Farhadi), Leila Hatami opts to file for divorce from husband Peyman Moaadi over his refusal to take their family out of the country. And with that first yank of a loose thread, the entire sweater starts to unravel, carrying with it a devastating list of unforeseen consequences that drags all parties into the Iranian legal system and allows Farhadi to comment on class, marriage, parenthood, honor, and justice. Iranian films are often praised for their simplicity, but it’s only this inciting incident that’s simple—the rest of A Separation gets more complex and prismatic as it goes along, adding significance without ever being emphatic about it. Beyond the impeccable performances and direction, it’s foremost an exceptional piece of screenwriting, so finely wrought that the drama seems guided by an invisible hand.
Hatami’s decision to leave her husband raises the immediate practical problem of finding someone to take care of his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. For that, Moaadi hires Sarah Bayat, a deeply religious woman of humbler stock who takes her daughter to work with her and is carrying a child—a fact whose secrecy later comes under fierce dispute. When the overwhelmed Bayat exhibits extreme negligence on the job, Moaadi’s furious reaction leads to an incident that lands him, his wife, Bayat, and her tempestuous husband (Shahab Hosseini) in front of a judge, with potentially harsh ramifications for everyone involved, not least Moaadi and Hatami’s daughter, who’s caught in the middle.
The characters in A Separation are often driven, like all humans, by self-interest and self-preservation, and Farhadi clarifies the massive stakes and the reasons each of them have for not always being forthright. The film resides on multiple fault lines—between Moaadi and Hatami, between the well-to-do and the poor, between the truth and a flawed justice system that doesn’t always suss it out fairly. But it’s also keenly incisive about how a dispute between parents can turn children into collateral damage without either party being aware of it. Farhadi explores this situation from myriad angles, but lands again on a simple, perfect final shot that throws the true cost of this conflict into focus.