Most years, the film that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is an embarrassment—earnest, didactic, maudlin, unchallenging, wholly forgettable. Last Sunday, however, for the first time since (by my estimation) 1972—when the prize went to Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—the Academy actually got it right. In fact, not only is A Separation, from Iran, the finest movie sporting subtitles to be released in the U.S. last year, but it’s also orders of magnitude more impressive than any of the Best Picture nominees, not to mention everything else that’s hit theaters over the past few years. If you like ’em endlessly gripping, dizzyingly complex and utterly heartbreaking, this is the one you’ve been waiting for, and nothing short of Armageddon should keep you away.
Like most great movies, A Separation begins with something small—namely, the titular estrangement, set in motion when Nader (Peyman Moaadi) refuses to take advantage of a long-awaited visa and permanently leave the country with his wife Simin (Leila Hatami). The two still love each other dearly, but Nader won’t abandon his elderly father, who suffers from severe Alzheimer’s and needs round-the-clock care. When Simin moves out, Nader’s job forces him to hire a daytime caretaker (Sareh Bayat), whose actions inadvertently result in a logistical, ethical and ultimately legal quagmire, which sees Nader charged with murder (of an unborn fetus) and multiple lives torn apart.
Nader and Simin have a child of their own, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the teenage daughter of writer-director Asghar Farhadi), who winds up as collateral damage; the film is never more lump-in-your-throat powerful than when sadly noting the way that parents unwittingly manipulate and even emotionally terrorize their kids, always with the best of intentions. But every aspect of A Separation demonstrates the thrilling emotional intricacy of a great play by the likes of Ibsen, Chekhov or O’Neill, while remaining superlatively cinematic at all times. (Farhadi’s use of architecture to create multiple planes physically separating the characters is remarkably subtle.) If ever you’re to be motivated by the phrase “Academy Award winner,” please, let it be now.