In the opening scene of A Separation, a couple makes their case for a divorce to an offscreen judge: the wife wishes to move to another country; the husband wants to stay in Iran to care for his elderly father, afflicted with Alzheimer's. In the middle is the couple's emotionally mature 11-year-old daughter. But the wife's real intentions remain cloudy - fitting, perhaps, in this stressful film about people whose good intentions lead to bad outcomes, and whose lies and stubbornness make things even worse.
The crux of A Separation's story lies in just what exactly happened to a woman hired to take care of the elderly father after the wife moves out of the house. I won't give anything away, but it's a moment that happens just millimeters off camera, making us as uncertain as most of the characters: we're left wondering who is telling the truth, who is lying, and why.
Those whose only exposure to Iranian cinema has been to the slow, long takes of international festival favorites such as Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami will be pleasantly surprised by writer/director Farhadi's brisk, Western-style plotting, camerawork, and editing. Which isn't to suggest that there's anything particularly American about A Separation, but it's a riveting drama that is accessible to all, with great performances across the board and a story that, while it has its ambiguities, is never less than engaging. Not exactly a lovable movie, but still a compelling one.