If the Best Picture category can be expanded to accommodate big budget feel-gooders like The Blind Side and indie curios like A Serious Man than it should be bloody well big enough for a flat-out brilliant foreign language film like Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. It is inconceivable that there will be nine or ten better films this year.
Farhadi's note-perfect storytelling recalls the films of the great Krzysztof Kieslowski. His films, like Farhadi's, watch attentively as characters make choices which lead to other choices and the ramifications of which ripple out in all manner of unexpected direction until we find that the very lives of the characters are on the line. They never feel like filmed screenplays, but rather seem uncannily like real life being lived.
The seeds of A Separation's story are planted in the first scene when a marriage falls apart over the question of whether to leave Iran. Their relationship isn't dead, both parties are reasonable and relatively calm, but she want to leave and he doesn't and the marriage cannot function in this state of stalemate. She moves out leaving him and their daughter ill-equipped to provide the 24-hour care his senile father needs. A maid is hired who is unaware of the extensive nursing duties that are to be a major part of her responsibilities.
And from there it would be criminal of me to give away anything else except to say that there is an incident, which escalates to an argument, which in turn leaves all parties involved feeling like the victim. Without resorting to Rashomon-style multiple perspectives Farhadi does an astonishing job of presenting us with a situation that on the surface seems cut and dry, but the truth of which is continually kept just out of our grasp. The facts of the case are more or less established at the outset but every time we think we are closing in on the heart of the matter we get a new angle and the ground shifts beneath our feet again. It's an amazing piece of writing.
The entire cast is spot on (look alive SAG ensemble award) but I would single out, in performances certain to get zero recognition, Sareh Bayet and Shahab Hosseini, as the maid and her short-fused husband. In a perfect world both would be contenders for supporting honors from every group on the circuit.
I would be stunned - and ecstatic - if A Separation does not end up being the finest film I see at the New York Film Festival. It is cinema at its best, where we find ourselves utterly absorbed in the lives of the characters on screen and caring deeply about what happens to them. Don't miss this one.
9 out of 10