(Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
Here is perhaps the most acute and suspenseful thriller of the year. Yet it arrives looking very much like a family drama. Opening with an Iranian couple arguing their cases before a judge in court as the wife seeks a divorce, and advancing in its early stages through a fluent, casually observant drama capturing the pressures and stresses within a middle class Tehran family, at a key point in the first act, A Separartion suddenly transforms into something quite different. A misunderstanding leads to a disagreement, offence is caused, someone is perhaps hurt, accusations are made and charges levelled, and from then on two families are set on convergent, antagonistic paths. The entire agonising situation is only worsened with each instance of pride, denial, anger and recrimination.
The story soon picks up a hellish momentum, its characters caught in their own war, the people around them seemingly collateral damage. All this happens without once straining plausibility, each character following their own obvious personality, every argument terrifyingly, cringe-inducingly credible in origin and progression, until it all reaches a certain pitch of pained suspense which is almost hard to watch. Farhadi is also scrupulously fair; moral equivalency is a theme here, and we see that all of the players in this ugly, sad little drama have their reasons. The many scenes set in the bureaucratic banality of the Iranian courts - plain, flatly lit civic offices, all weary officials, long corridors and shuffled paperwork - so effortlessly capture a familiar sense of place that you feel as if you might have been there yourself.
While this is brilliant - and it is - what truly lifts A Separation to another level is the way Farhadi views the world in which he sets his tale. He observes this world and all its many complexities of class, family, religion and the law and considers how these forces effect people. Many dramas and even a few thrillers make efforts to portray a world like the one we live in, but few do it with such convincing texture and precision. It is even rarer to find one combining that sort of intricate artfulness with a compulsively suspenseful narrative and rich, believable characters. Farhadi achieves all that. He also depicts the complexities of Sharia law without ever demonising it, and his film is a curt rebuttal of any stereotypical Western views on Iranian life.
Small, telling details are noted by his mobile, handheld camera. The class differences between the families are evident - but subtly recorded, never underlined - long before they become truly relevant, in Court. The children of the families are cast as witnesses to the carnage, quiet observers and consciences for their parents. Other figures wander onscreen occasionally, guests in the tapestry, adding character and grit to Farhadi's portrayal of Iran, which we see mainly in the form of the buzzing, suffocating immensity of Tehran and its endless roads.
The cast are all sensational, giving invisible performances which meld beautifully with the directors quasi-documentary style to create such a dazzling whole.