“A Separation” is probably one of the best films of the year. But it should come with a warning label, because it is not for the faint of heart. It is so intense that it can tie your stomach in knots, and you may have a hard time breathing. A woman a few seats from me sobbed through the whole thing.

The film is a slice-of-life, or rather, a large unhappy chunk-of-life, set in modern Iran. Made by Asghar Farhadi, a writer/director you’ve probably never heard of, and starring marvelous actors you’ve probably never seen before and whose names are unfamiliar, “A Separation” is a Kafkaesque look at a marriage that is unwittingly being pulled apart by circumstances that nobody seems able to stop.

The husband has a mid-level job and they live fairly comfortably, but the wife (Leila Hatami), feeling bogged down, wants to leave the country and begin a new life abroad. Her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi), however, will not leave his father, who lives with them and requires constant care. He has Alzheimer’s, which prompts the wife to protest, “But he doesn’t even know you. He doesn’t know you are his son” To which the husband replies, “Yes, but I know I am his son.”

Frustrated and unhappy, the wife, who has had the responsibility of taking care of her father-in-law, instigates a trial separation and goes to live with her family. Their studious 11-year-old daughter (Sarina Farhadi) stays behind with her father.

Enter Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a poor lady whose angry and volatile husband is out of work. She takes on the job of caring for the old man, but insists that it be kept secret from her husband, as he would forbid her working. Further complicating her life is the fact that she is pregnant, although you might never suspect it under the voluminous chador she wears at all times.

As the plot thickens, Razieh abruptly leaves the old man alone as she rushes off on an errand of her own. He is asleep, so she ties him to his bed and locks his door so that he will not wander around while she is gone. But Nader, returning home, discovers his father unconscious on the floor and nearly dead.

Distraught, Nader fires Razieh when she returns, and when she protests, he forcibly evicts her from the apartment. Whereupon she falls on the stairway, is rushed to the hospital, and miscarries her baby.

Razieh’s hotheaded husband initiates a lawsuit charging Nader with the murder of the baby, and Nader is carted off to jail.

This operatic plot is carried on at top volume, as everyone continually shouts at everyone else — and frequently all at the same time. But there is no real villain in the piece. Nader is a decent man, harassed and conflicted, who is enveloped in dramatic circumstances and a web of lies. And the story is almost less important than the glimpse of life in an oppressively restrictive society that the viewer is engulfed by.

Tehran, sun-drenched and clotted with traffic, is a tangible presence; the indifference of a bustling city provides a sharp contrast to the claustrophobic intensity of this besieged family. And the inevitable ending is both sad and shocking. I did not see it coming.

“A Separation” is playing now in theaters around Los Angeles. It’s a fascinating study of a culture that is both different from ours and, in many ways, very recognizable.


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