When the Kansas City Film Critics Circle gathered in early January to honor the year in film, only about half the room had seen the Iranian movie A Separation, yet it managed to win the group's Best Foreign Film prize.
The film opens with a modern Iranian couple talking directly to the camera, representing the point of view of a judge hearing their arguments about why they want a divorce. The wife, Simin, is a physician and determined to eventually leave Iran in order to provide her 11-year-old daughter a life free from the country's strict edicts about women. Her husband, Nader, also gainfully employed, is content to stay in Iran but also bound to it, as he is the primary caretaker for his elderly father beset with advancing dementia.
The judge issues a trial separation and grants the couple joint custody. But in order for Nader to work free of guilt and worry about his feeble father, he hires a young woman, Rezeih, to care for him during the day. The arrangement becomes a bit complicated, as Rezeih lives a much more orthodox life and takes the job (with her preschool age daughter in tow) without telling her conservative husband, who wouldn't approve for several reasons. What follows are unexpected twists and shocks that negate spoiling too much more of the plot except to say that one misguided mistake on Rezeih's part provokes a series of legal and physical battles that threaten to harm both families.
A Separation is like a dense novel that makes you feel, sense and understand the attributes and flaws of its principle characters. It's a thrilling film and often evocative of the great British films of director Mike Leigh, where the characters behave in ways that make you believe every minute on screen. Here, audiences are let in behind the closed doors of what it's like to live among people of different beliefs in a divided, often misunderstood country.