But after hearing rave reviews of Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation," which won this year's top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as prizes for the ensemble male and female casts, I figured it was time to widen my horizons again.
"A Separation" opens with Nader and Simin, a modern, professional couple, in the office of a judge. Simin wants to divorce Nader because he refuses to move abroad. Simin thinks it will give their studious 10 year-old daughter Termeh a better life while Nader does not want to leave Iran or his elderly father, who is suffering from Alzheimer's. This scene makes clear that while the couple still cares about each other, they have reached an impasse in their relationship and both are too stubborn to budge.
Simin decides to move out (although she hints she will leave the country without Nader, she actually moves back to her mother's) and Termeh decides to stay with her father and grandfather. Needing someone to look after his father while he is at work, Nader hires poor, devout Razieh, who takes the job without her unemployed, volatile husband's knowledge. Razieh also has a young daughter, whom she brings to work with her, and is pregnant, a fact Nader may or may not know.
One afternoon, Nader comes home early to find Razieh inexplicably absent and his father on the floor unconscious, one arm tied to the bed. When Razieh returns, an argument ensues and Nader pushes Razieh out of the apartment. The unexpected tragic consequences of this argument leads Razieh's husband to accuse Nader of assault. Much of the rest of the film follows the investigation of the incident (which we do not see fully), with both sides accusing the other of lying and both families threatened to be torn apart.
While the film is somewhat slow-moving and rather bleak, the story has more twists and turns than your average thriller and the acting is uniformly excellent. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into modern Iranian society, highlighting the striking class differences and chaotic justice system (although in some ways it seems scarily similar to France's).
I suppose you could take the conflicts in the story and the way its characters bend the truth not out of malice but out of fear as a commentary on Iranian society as a whole. But these political considerations only came to me after the fact. At its core, "A Separation" is a universal story about how the lack of understanding and communication can tear a family apart.
There are no good guys or bad guys here, just individuals whose struggles to stick to their principles lead them further and further astray (the film makes clear that Nader's pride and Razieh's tight-lippedness are equally to blame for what happens). The most tragic part of the story is seeing how Termeh is drawn into the conflict and how her faith in her father is put to the test. As is often the case in real-life family dramas, despite the parents' best intentions, it is the children who suffer the most.
I'm not sure when this movie is being released in the US (unless it already has been?) but I highly recommend it and wouldn't be surprised if it was nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar. It was also a good reminder to me to keep a little foreign spice in my usual diet of American action movies and French comedies. So do any of you have another piece of 'World Cinema' to recommend?