Asghar Farhadi's A Separation has already received so many awards and accolades - the latest being Tuesday's Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film and best original screenplay - that it's impossible to enter the theater without bringing huge expectations along.
Which is too bad, because this carefully observed drama about a middle-class Tehran couple's legal and familial strife isn't the type of film to wow with visual flourishes or extraordinary plot twists or in-your-face theatrics.
It's small. It's real. And it's deeply moving.
A Separation, the Iranian director's fifth film, opens with Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) facing a magistrate (and facing the camera, and hence, facing us). She has applied to leave Iran and wants her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter), and husband to come along. But Nader won't go - his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's, needs his care.
He doesn't even know who you are, his wife tells him. But no matter, Nader refuses, and so Simin is asking the judge - a harried administrator in an office full of people coming and going - to grant a divorce, so she can take her daughter and move to a country with more promise, more freedom.
That's just one aspect of the story, which contrasts the comfortable, secular life of Simin, Nader, and their watchful preteen with that of a devout Muslim couple, Razieh (Sareh Bayat) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). They are plagued with money woes, have a small child of their own, and Razieh, without telling her spouse, has taken a job watching Nader's father.
Nader goes to work, and Razieh comes into their apartment, her daughter in tow, to tend to the old man.
This arrangement doesn't work out, however: Nader returns home early one day to discover his father strapped to the bed, Razieh nowhere to be found.
What follows - an argument, an accusation, a push - is left open to interpretation, with Nader and his family on one side, and the fiery Hodjat and his clan on the other. And all of the chauvinist and religious biases of their country in between.
Farhadi shoots his actors - every one of them believable, and believably flawed - as they move through partitioned rooms, gazing through windows, watching from mirrors. There are literal separations all through A Separation - walls, stairways, streets, doors - that emphasize the isolation, the lack of understanding, the rifts in class and culture. That may suggest a film heavy with symbolism, but this is Iranian cinema: unhurried, deceptively simple, respectful of its characters, even as they lie to one another, and perhaps to themselves.
And like so many of the films that come out of Iran, this one takes particular care to understand the children at the center of it all. It is Termeh, who wears glasses and cracks a winsome smile - and trembles in pain as she is forced to choose between living with her mother or with her father - who may feel this separation with the most anguish, the most heartbreak.