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A Separation: Scenes from a marriage 

***1/2

A SEPARATION

***1/2

DIRECTED BY Asghar Farhadi

STARS Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami

When Asghar Farhadi recently collected the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the Iranian writer-director of A Separation stated that the name of his country "is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." His speech, humanist rather than political, sympathetic rather than inflammatory, reminded me of that moment in Charles Ferguson's superb Iraq War documentary No End in Sight in which a pair of Iraqi citizens weep over Bush's destruction of Baghdad's museum and library, both historical landmarks containing artifacts over 1,000 years old.

A Separation, like Farhadi's speech and that sequence in No End in Sight, is a rarity: a clarion cry that cuts through the xenophobic clutter and the dense fog of war to show that not everyone "over there" is a boogeyman waiting to jump out of the closet. If that sounds terribly simplistic, just consider where we live — a nation that once used to enjoy daily Terror Alerts to go along with morning coffee and toast, and one where an alarming number of yahoos consider the present POTUS to be a covert Muslim operative. Granted, Tea Party evildoers won't be caught within a zip code of this movie, but even open-minded moviegoers curious to check it out might be surprised how many scenes and situations strike close to home.

At the film's center are husband and wife Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), who live in Tehran with their school-age daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) and Nader's Alzheimer's-affected father. Simin wants to move to another country, while Nader wants to remain put — obviously an irreconcilable difference. When a judge turns down Simin's request for a divorce, the pair decide to live apart; even though Nader still has Termeh to help him with his dad, he hires a pregnant woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to serve as the elderly man's caretaker. It's the worst decision he could have made, as misunderstandings and outright lies soon lead to violence and a charge of murder.

Make no mistake: Many Iranian filmmakers aren't chummy with their country's conservative government, which has often tried to stifle creative expression, and while the nation did endorse Farhadi's film, its leaders doubtless never expected this small, personal drama to reach such an international audience. And yet its success on the global stage makes perfect sense: An expertly written and directed piece about familial strife, it shares plenty of DNA with similarly domestic efforts like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer. Yet the palpable tension between the spouses is only part of the equation, as the picture also looks at resentment between classes, the impact of religion on the various characters, the limitations of a rigid judicial system, and the sexual dynamics in a society that, for all its modest gains in the name of equality, still remains a fundamentally patriarchal one. Clearly, A Separation is a movie that's specific in its setting and universal in its issues, in many ways as all-American as it is all-Iranian.

Go here for a look at the 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2011.

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