One of the best films of 2011, currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, begins rolling out across the US over next two months. Check the site for cities and dates.
"A Separation literally makes the viewer judge its protagonists," notes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily: "in the opening scene, wife Simin (Leila Hatami) pleads for a divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Maadi). The POV is the judge's, who skeptically asks why an Iranian woman would possibly want her daughter to grow up anywhere else. The offscreen interrogator/filmmaker is a familiar figure in Iranian cinema, with Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi often breaking the fourth walls in their films, often directly appearing (and/or heard off-camera) asking their characters questions. Kiarostami's seemingly given up on making films in Iran at all, while Panahi's imprisoned; for many, Iranian cinema's currently more associated right now with its absentees than actual films. But writer-director Asghar Farhadi's now completed five features, carefully disavowing any political intent in interviews. 'There's a difference between intentions and message,' a typical feint to the New York Times went. 'My intention was to create a story and let you interpret what it means.'"
"When Simin moves out to live with her parents, Nader hires a caretaker, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to look after his father during the day," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "This devout young mother is soon overwhelmed by the task of attending to a man who can no longer speak, dress, or wash himself. One afternoon, for reasons that aren't clear at first, she leaves the old man alone while she runs an errand. The consequences of that act — and of Nader's outburst when he comes home to find his father unattended — will eventually spiral into personal and legal disaster for both families, Nader's and Razieh's. As plot summaries go, that's a sketchy one, but I'll leave it there, since one of A Separation's great strengths is the way it gradually reveals the complicated half-truths and strategic evasions in each party's version of the story. In a way, this is also a legal procedural, but one in which the truth becomes less and less clear-cut as the film goes on. As the battle between the two families escalates — with Simin taking the side of her estranged husband, and Razieh's hotheaded husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) forcefully intervening on behalf of his terrified wife — we get a sense of the complex web of social forces determining these characters' choices."
"Coming in at just under two hours, A Separation feels as efficient as a marathon runner, moving at a brisk clip that still finds time for small, eloquent scenes bolstered by universally excellent performances," writes Alison Willmore at the Playlist. "Unadorned by any soundtrack, the film also has an intimate, unfussy look mirroring its subject matter — Mahmoud Kalari, who also served as cinematographer on the likes of Jafar Panahi's Offside and Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us, shot the film, and established throughout its runtime a quietly consistent motif."
"The film is bookended by long takes of Simin and Nader," notes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. "In the first shot, they sit next to each other facing the camera as an offscreen official hears their case. In the final shot, under the closing credits, each sits on either side of a glass partition in a corridor outside the room where their daughter decides with whom she will live. Apart from the deliberate framing of these shots — which also serve to frame the story within the legal and cultural forces of Iranian society — the camerawork is admirably self-effacing. Even its moves and plays with focus in the confined spaces of the couples' apartments and government offices are attuned to character behavior — open to the discoveries of the moment rather than staged as moral commentary."
"The miracle of A Separation is that it doesn’t spare any of its characters, nor does it seek to indict them," adds Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. "It is a democratic portrait of a theocratic world."
More from Chris Barsanti (Filmcritic.com), Richard Corliss (Time), Bilge Ebiri, Steve Erickson (Gay City News), J Hoberman (Voice), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 4.5/5), Eric Kohn (indieWIRE), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), AO Scott (NYT), Henry Stewart (L), Scott Tobias (AV Club, A) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times). Background and interviews: Sam Adams (AV Club), Damon Smith (Filmmaker) and Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE).
Earlier: Reviews from the 2011 Berlin and New York film festivals. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.