I'm violently opposed to judging films by their plots. I'm full of obnoxious comments like, "I don't care what the story is, I care how it is." While there is much more to Asghar Farhadi's A Separation than its plot, the storyline is one of the richest I've ever encountered. So I'm providing the summary that I often skip.
It all starts so simply...Nader (a fluctuating, brilliant performance by Peyman Moadi) seeks a divorce from Simin (Leila Hatami, with hair that doesn't want to be under a scarf all the time) because she wishes to use a visa to leave Iran. He cannot countenance abandoning his rapidly declining father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and, after Simin moves to her mother's house, he must find a daytime nurse for the old man. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat, with eyes that rear back like a horse's) who brings a young daughter and, crucially, an unborn child with her to work. An argument over missing money and shoddy caretaking causes Nader to push Razieh out of the apartment and the implications of those moments fill the rest of the film. Razieh's husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) arrives in a headbutting fury after learning his wife has miscarried but his presence is almost comforting, as his constant rage (at losing a child, at being underemployed, at being powerless) shows on a surface level. Every other character seems somehow more pained, their injuries muffled, too deeply embedded to reveal.
The events of the film, the particulars of the plot's intricate circularity, are weighed by a battery of judges. In the first post-credits shot, the camera sits in the unseen magistrate's chair listening to the bitter testimony of Nader and Simin. A visible but unnamed interrogator later dispenses more rulings, patient with Nader and Hodjat but terribly overworked. These officials are less important to the central couples than two other figures. For Razieh and Hodjat, the ultimate judge is God, and they are constantly swearing on or having others swear on the Koran (the physical book proves to be Razieh's undoing at a moment of truth). For Simin and Nader, the ultimate judge is their daughter, Termeh (the astounding Sarina Farhadi), who observes proceedings behind frameless glasses, quiet and omniscient as a security camera. By the end, Nader is frankly terrified by how little escapes her gaze, how many of his half-truths she's caught.
This is not a picture of life in the public spaces of Iran. It's an intimacy with Nader's apartment, a familiarity with the way the front door handle cuts a small semi circle into the doorjamb, as if we've lived there for years. People come and go through the space, often separated by frames within frames: walls, doorways, frosted glass. Conversations are cut off then restarted in different groups, rejiggered to just the family, just the adults, just the men. The unease at home comes across in an early shot of a print of the painting you think of when you hear the name Andrew Wyeth. Acts in this private space are so definitive that Farhadi cuts directly from a reenactment of Razieh being pushed to official testimony about the same. The film sits on my chest, heavy and dusty as one of the carpets in that vortex of an apartment.
As we're in an epoch of totally laughable Oscar selections, A Separation is one film for which I can root come February.