Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Simin and Nader (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi).

DOMESTIC STRIFE becomes a cultural microcosm in Asghar Farhadi’s beautifully crafted, impeccably acted film A Separation. An educated, middle-class couple files for separation. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants to leave Iran while her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), refuses to abandon his sick and helpless father, and their adolescent daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), is left torn between them. Amid the chaos of the separation, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working-class woman and devout Muslim, partly to do housekeeping, but mainly to tend to his father’s needs while he is at work. One day, he returns to find his father tied to the bed unconscious and Razieh nowhere in sight. Unaware that she left to see her gynecologist, he fires her on her return and accuses her of stealing some money he had left around unwittingly. When she protests and insists on being paid for the day, the enraged Nader pushes her out the door where she falls on the stairs and shortly after suffers a miscarriage.

The ensuing legal investigations—in which Nader is accused of murder and Razieh of criminal neglect—consume more than half the film. Each character’s behavior comes under scrutiny, not only by court officials, but also by the other characters and, of course, the viewer. For example, our first impression of Razieh’s unemployed, hot-tempered husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), from whom she has concealed her employment, makes us wonder if he played some role in her miscarriage. And though Nader seems sincere when he denies knowing that Razieh was pregnant, small clues hint otherwise. Fearful of Hodjat’s threats of revenge, Simin suggests offering “blood money” as a way to settle the matter. Though at first resistant, Nader agrees to the idea, but no sooner does this seem the solution than another twist is introduced. Razieh tells Simin that “she has doubts” because on the day before the incident on the stairs, she was struck by a car while pursuing Nader’s wandering father into the street, and experienced pains that very night. This makes her question her own culpability. Thus, when the couples meet to settle accounts with the “blood money” and Nader asks Razieh to swear on the Koran that he was responsible for her miscarriage, she hesitates. Convinced she will be violating her faith, she tells her husband the truth, after which he goes berserk.

Farhadi’s camera—often, if not always handheld—follows the nuances and unexpected turns in the action with effortless grace and subtlety. Immersive but not intrusive, detached but not judgmental, it is the absolutely right stance to tell a story in which each disclosure prompts adjustment of the viewer’s perspective, and in which truth and responsibility shift among the characters. This is not to say there is no narrative calculation. When Farhadi cuts away from Razieh in the street at the moment she spots Nader’s father, he imposes an omniscient perspective that deprives us of critical information, a strategy less detectable elsewhere in the film. But, by withholding what occurred until Razieh reveals it later, he sustains the notion that everyone behaves at any one time in proportion to what is at stake.

The film is bookended by long takes of Simin and Nader. In the first shot, they sit next to each other facing the camera as an offscreen official hears their case. In the final shot, under the closing credits, each sits on either side of a glass partition in a corridor outside the room where their daughter decides with whom she will live. Apart from the deliberate framing of these shots—which also serve to frame the story within the legal and cultural forces of Iranian society—the camerawork is admirably self-effacing. Even its moves and plays with focus in the confined spaces of the couples’ apartments and government offices are attuned to character behavior—open to the discoveries of the moment rather than staged as moral commentary.

Throughout the film, shots both of Termeh and of Razieh’s daughter register the way children learn about the social structures that monitor the lives of those they thought omnipotent. The film’s saddest moments involve the toll this knowledge takes, as in the scene when Nader finally admits to his daughter that he knew Razieh was pregnant, offering to confess if she wishes. While the ensuing crash of her fallen idol is barely discernible in her demeanor, it is no less devastating. But when she lies later to an official to defend her father, the shot of her tearstained face in the car afterward tells us her world has changed.

Tony Pipolo

A Separation opens Friday, December 30, in New York and Los Angeles.