This astutely observed film, which plays out in the space where human behaviour bumps up against theology and the law, capped a year of acclaim last week when it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was twelve months ago that it took out top honours at the Berlin Film Festival, and on its road to the Oscars it also picked up the Sydney Film Festival prize – making it one of the most celebrated films on the festival circuit. It’s clearly a highly regarded piece of art-house filmmaking, with Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi telling a complex and difficult story about a privileged couple who cannot agree on the big decisions in life, who cannot escape the small, and who find that there’s little help to be had in religion or law.
The film opens with Simin (Leila Hatami) & Nader (Peyman Moaadi) arguing before a family court judge in Tehran. Simin wants to leave the country with their daughter, but Nadir refuses to go because of the health of his frail and forgetful father, leaving Simin with no option but to seek a divorce so she can travel alone. When the court decides that the couple’s problems don’t warrant any legal intervention, Simin moves out to stay with her mother. To help with the household chores, and look after his father, Nader then employs a maid named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) who is deeply religious and unable to cope with the demands of the unpleasant job. As the narrative escalates in complexity, Nader argues with Razieh and her dangerously hot-headed husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is in debt. This group of people, intricately bound together by the untidy minutiae of everyday life, quickly find themselves back in the courts looking for answers.
Like real-life separations, with their uneasy messiness, painful misunderstandings and high emotional stakes, there are no simple answers to be found in this story. Fahardi’s accomplishment is to have brought to the screen a group of equally complex, equally flawed, and equally human characters whose only real problem is that they must live life with each other. He also shows us that human existence in Iran is really no different to anywhere else: it’s a constant battle with expectations and desires, traffic and laundry, bureaucracy, family and intimacy. The ensemble cast is flawless and the naturalistic realism of the cinematography is always focused on the emotional state of the characters as they grapple with the very real issues we all face each day.