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Originally published Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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Movie review

'A Separation': a wholly engrossing Iranian tale of a couple divided

A movie review of "A Separation," a major breakthrough in Tehran-based cinema. This eye-opening window on modern Iranian daily life has been tagged "Divorce Iranian Style."

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

'A Separation,' with Leila Hatami, Peyman Moadi, Sareh Bayat, Sariana Farhadi. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Egyptian.

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A major breakthrough in Tehran-based cinema, Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" has already been tagged "Divorce Iranian Style" in headlines and reviews and stories about the many prizes it's collected (including a Golden Globe, the top Berlin Film Festival award and two recent Oscar nominations).

That tabloid-ready nickname is certainly an accurate description, but the official title — so spare, so understated — promises something that's both wide-ranging and more mysterious. Above all, it tells us this is not just a movie about a divorce.

"A Separation" is partly a courtroom drama, partly a political satire and partly a twisty thriller that gradually draws you in and becomes more engrossing with each new revelation.

It begins with a long, long take (which will be echoed in the lengthy final shot) of a husband and wife asking for a divorce in a contemporary Iranian courtroom.

Simin (Leila Hatami) is a middle-class wife and mother who wants to get out of the country in order to increase the opportunities for her 10-year-old child, Termeh (Sariana Farhadi). Her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), feels compelled to stay in Iran to take care of a father afflicted with Alzheimer's.

What seems like a simple legal procedure soon becomes complicated by the husband's situation, which leads him to hire a devout young Muslim (Sareh Bayat) to take care of his father, who can no longer be trusted to bathe and dress himself.

Is a female caretaker's exposure to an old man's nudity a sin? The answer to that question gradually becomes central to a story that suggests a window into the daily workings of modern Iran.

An episode in which a child is shown how to deal with money at a gas station becomes strangely fascinating. So are the glimpses of bureaucracy that lead to a Kafkaesque nightmare — and the "Rashomon"-like touches that hint that objective reality may not exist.

These are not simply distractions. They're carefully integrated into the family's story, which includes Nader's fear (and he may be right) that Simin is turning Termeh against him. Moadi and Hatami brilliantly capture their conflicting feelings.

Farhadi's fifth feature film, "A Separation" demonstrates a technical assurance and a storytelling gift that make you wonder why his previous work hasn't been widely seen. In addition to its Oscar nomination for best-foreign-language film, it's in the running for best original screenplay. Don't be surprised if it wins both.

John Hartl:

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