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Review: Wise, humane 'Separation' looks at cultural, class differences

At the start of "A Separation," an Iranian couple appears before a judge to request a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) have irreconcilable differences: She wants to move abroad before their exit visas expire for the sake of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). He is unwilling to relocate because his father is ill with Alzheimer's and cannot take care of himself. But Simin would rather break up their marriage than stay put, because she doesn't want her child to grow up under what she calls "these circumstances."

What, exactly, does she mean by that• Writer-director Asghar Farhadi uses uncommon subtlety in "A Separation" to show how the cultural limitations and class differences inherent in any society can lead to chaos and tragedy. This family just happens to be Iranian, which means that when Nader hires a nurse, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to help tend to his father, she must call her religious leader and ask permission before she can touch the old man to help him out of his soiled clothes.

Razieh is also pregnant, but she hasn't told her husband (Shahab Hosseini). She keeps many secrets from him, some more innocent than others. With astonishing insight and wisdom, the movie depicts how the simple decisions we make on the spur of the moment can sometimes have momentous, unintended repercussions.

"A Separation" uses a clean style of storytelling that emphasizes faces and bodies, and right from its opening moments, when the husband and wife plea their cases directly into the camera (they're speaking to a judge who is heard but not seen), the movie presents each character's point of view clearly and fairly -- something difficult to do when no one agrees with anyone else. Halfway through the film, in the midst of a heated argument, Nader does something so unremarkable that we barely even notice. Later, his seemingly trivial act brings criminal charges and the possibility of a prison sentence.

There are no good guys or bad guys in "A Separation": There are only people, trying to do the best they can for their families. The slow inevitability of disaster that starts to loom over the characters -- a disaster that intensifies and grows worse as the movie unfolds -- is particularly fascinating because the crisis is born out of everyday circumstance and ordinary behavior, not some elaborate twist of plot. The movie is precise and exact about its setting, but this story could easily happen to you.

This wise, humane movie wants us to empathize with its characters, and the more we understand their everyday reality, the deeper we'll be drawn into their lives. "A Separation" succeeds so well that the end result is pulverizing. Sometimes, in an attempt to do the best we can for the people we love, we end up wreaking irreparable damage.

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