When Oscar nominations were released last week, it was no surprise that the Iranian film A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, was among the list of Foreign Language Films—after all, it had already won the Golden Globe in that category in addition to being a big hit on the festival circuit. But with a second nomination, for Original Screenplay, the film has a shot at upsetting movies backed by Hollywood powerhouses.
Farhadi, who started out writing screenplays for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and directing TV shows, has slowly gained a Western audience with films like Fireworks Wednesday, which won a Golden Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2006, and About Elly, which won prizes at festivals in Berlin and Tribeca in 2009. With the success of A Separation, Farhadi is poised to break into a more mainstream audience, and in so doing, to bring a subtle, nuanced portrait of daily life in Iran to the American public at a time when relations between the two countries are particularly tense.
The film begins as Simin (Leila Hatami) is asking a judge to grant her a divorce from her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), not because he's a bad partner—she calls him a "good and decent person"—but because he refuses to leave Iran with her, claiming that he instead needs to take care of his elderly father. Frustrated by the official's refusal to grant her request, Simin leaves the apartment where she and Nader live with their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) to stay at her parents' house, leaving Nader to find a substitute caretaker for his father, who has Alzheimer's and can't be left alone. So he hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout woman with a young daughter, Samoyeh (Kimia Hossenei), and another child on the way—though it's hard to tell beneath her flowing chador. After Nader's father soils his pants on the first day, Razieh wants to quit. "The work is too heavy," she says; it's also underpaid and far from her home in the suburbs. But her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), is unemployed and in debt to multiple creditors, so she continues on—but in secret, as Hodjat has a hot temper and would be angry to learn she's working for a single man.
Shortly thereafter, Nader comes home early to find his father face-down on the floor, his hand tied to a bedpost, and no one else home. When Razieh returns to the house shortly thereafter, saying only that she had to go out, Nader's fear and frustration erupt, and a confrontation between the two ends with Nader pushing Razieh out the door. That action sets off a chain of accusations, defenses, and contentions that loop around and circle back over a constantly shifting moral terrain.