Tense and narratively complex, formally dense and morally challenging, Iranian helmer-writer Asghar Farhadi’s impressive drama “Nader and Simin, a Separation” is his strongest work yet. The provocative plot casts a revealing light on contempo Iranian society, taking on issues of gender, class, justice and honor as a secular middle-class family in the midst of upheaval winds up in conflict with an impoverished religious one. Simultaneously competing in Tehran’s Fajr Film Festival national section, the pic should find niche arthouse play in most territories offshore and a critical triumph at home.
Like Farhadi’s “About Elly” (which nabbed the director prize at the 2009 Berlinale), the plot-heavy “Nader and Simin” offers an extended setup. Bank employee Nader (Peyman Moadi) refuses to emigrate, and wife Simin (Leila Hatami) sues for divorce, citing better opportunities for their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter) outside the country, in a scene that is perhaps the film’s least credible, logically and emotionally, but also the event that sets the rest of the story in motion.
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After Simin decamps from the family apartment to the home of her mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh), Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout young woman with a 4-year-old daughter (Kimia Hosseini), to mind his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi).
It soon becomes clear to viewers, if not to Nader (who is depicted as decidedly impractical about household matters), that the chador-clad Razieh is pregnant, and looking after the wandering, incontinent, elderly man will tax her energy as well as her religious principles. Moreover, her debt-ridden, out-of-work husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) doesn’t know she has taken the job, and would never allow her to enter the home of a strange man without the man’s wife present.
When Nader returns early one day and discovers Razieh absent from her post, an ugly argument ensues upon her return. Taking place near the 45-minute mark, the fallout from this confrontation pits Nader and Razieh against one another in the Iranian legal system and forces all involved, including Termeh’s tutor (Merila Zarei), to consider the nature of loyalty, truth and integrity.
While the intricate screenplay ratchets up tension as it raises the stakes for its characters from scene to scene, its reliance on contrivance might irritate some viewers. Indeed, the conceit of Nader and Simin’s separation occasionally appears as a petty battle of wills, something that undermines the weight of other events. But these are minor criticisms, as most audiences will be swept up in the complexity and audacity of the plot.
As rich formally as it is in terms of story, the film plays throughout with what is heard and not seen, making the central visual motif of open and closed doors integral to the plot; the edgy lensing of Iran’s top d.p., Mahmood Kalari, uses choreography and framing to telegraph relationships and feelings. Thesping is praiseworthy across the board.