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'A Separation' (PG-13)

At the start of A Separation, an Iranian couple appears before a judge to request a divorce. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) have irreconcilable differences: She wants to move abroad before their exit visas expire for the sake of their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). He is unwilling to relocate because his father is ill with Alzheimer’s and cannot take care of himself. But Simin would rather break up their marriage than stay put, because she doesn’t want her child to grow up under what she calls “these circumstances.”

What, exactly, does she mean by that? Writer-director Asghar Farhadi uses uncommon subtlety in A Separation to show how the cultural limitations and class differences inherent in any society can lead to chaos and tragedy. This family just happens to be Iranian, which means that when Nader hires a nurse, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to help tend to his father, she must call her religious leader and ask permission before she can touch the old man to help him out of his soiled clothes.

Razieh is also pregnant, but she hasn’t told her husband (Shahab Hosseini). She keeps many secrets from him, some more innocent than others. With a steadily mounting sense of dread and desperation, the movie depicts how simple decisions we make on the spur of the moment can sometimes have momentous, unintended repercussions.

Most of the Iranian films that make it into U.S. theaters tend to be too small and precise to break out beyond the art house circuit. But A Separation is the first one I’ve seen with the potential to cross over into the mainstream. The movie has such a profound and compassionate understanding of human behavior, family ties and the way ordinary people respond when they’re forced into a moral quandary, I can’t imagine anyone not being transfixed by it. By making his story specific to Iranian society, Farhadi has ensured his movie can travel the world.

A Separation uses a clean style of storytelling that emphasizes faces and bodies, and right from its opening moments, when the husband and wife plea their cases directly into the camera (they’re speaking to a judge who is heard but not seen), the movie presents each character’s point of view clearly and fairly – something difficult to do when no one agrees with anyone else. Halfway through the film, in the midst of a heated argument, Nader does something so unremarkable that we barely even notice. Later, his seeming trivial act brings criminal charges and the possibility of a prison sentence. A lot of romantic comedies are built around the premise of a white lie that the characters extend for the sake of the plot: If someone just stopped and told the truth, the movie would be over. In A Separation, due to the reality of Iranian society and its laws, telling the truth is not always an option.

There are no good guys or bad guys in A Separation: There are only people, trying to do the best they can for their families. The slow inevitability of disaster that starts to loom over the characters — a disaster that intensifies and grows worse as the movie unfolds — is particularly fascinating because the crisis is born out of everyday circumstance and  behavior, not some elaborate twist of plot. The movie is precise and exact about its setting, but this story could easily happen to you.

Much of A Separation takes place in confined spaces: Nader’s middle-class apartment, the chambers of a courthouse, a hallway where the fateful act takes place. Farhadi uses his camera to emphasize the spaces between people and their spatial proximity to each other: He wants to convey the physical realities of his characters as well as the emotional ones.  That’s the sort of detail many filmmakers often overlook, because it doesn’t seem important. But this wise, humane movie wants us to empathize with its characters, and the more we understand their everyday reality, the deeper we’ll be drawn into their lives. A Separation succeeds so well that the end result is pulverizing. Sometimes, in an attempt to do the best we can for the people we love, we end up wreaking irreparable damage.

Cast: Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Babak Karimi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh.

Writer-director: Asghar Farhadi.

Producer: Asghar Farhadi.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 123 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Tower.