The first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was 2011's A Separation, and for good reason. In focusing on the separation of a middle class couple in Tehran – and the effect that separation has on their eleven year-old daughter, Termeh – the film widens its scope in a subtle critique of Iranian society and ultimately achieves universality in its relevance.
The film begins with the couple, Nader and Simin, arguing in front of a court judge. Simin wants to leave the country because she no longer feels comfortable raising Termeh there, but Nader refuses to leave on account of his grandfather, who has Alzheimer's. So Simin decides to divorce him – but the judge refuses their application.
Of course, the title refers to more than just the separation of Nader and Simin. The majority of the film concerns a dispute Nader has with Razieh, a poor woman whom he hires to look after his grandfather while he's at work. That disagreement is too complex and slow-building to summarize here, but suffice it to say that they end up in court, she accusing him of causing a miscarriage, and he accusing her of neglecting his grandfather and of theft. There is a separation between these families culturally as well – the middle-class Nader and Simin, and the poorer, more devout Razieh (who has to call a religious hotline to be sure that cleaning up after the incontinent grandfather is acceptable) and her husband Hodjat. Both sides are full of righteous rage, but because we see all the events and relevant details as they occur, we understand each side's perspective, the source of their misunderstandings, and more importantly, the inevitability of them.
Throughout this conflict, the issue of what Nader and Simin will do to resolve their own disagreement is always present in the background, always informing the actions of the two and also of Termeh. Just as Termeh is torn between her parents, every character is torn by opposing external forces. This is what the title of the film truly refers to: the forces which pull at characters in opposite directions, and which cause a separation in them, or internal conflict.
In such a situation, no character can escape unscathed. The two families – Nader, Simin, and Termeh on one side, and Razieh and Hodjat on the other – finally attempt to compromise when Nader agrees to compensate them monetarily. But the plan fails when Nader asks Razieh to swear on the Quran that she is sure he was the cause of her miscarriage. He had previously refused to compensate them at all, because this would be an admission of guilt – and he maintained that he was innocent. Because she is such a devout Muslim, she cannot swear.
It's a cruel maneuver on Nader's part, but it's a telling moment. Razieh cannot swear on the Quran because, though both sides are reluctant to admit it, the issue of who is innocent and who is guilty, who is the victim and who is the criminal, is complicated. The deal breaks down, and Razieh and Hodjat are disgraced. But Nader, by now, has already implicitly admitted to Termeh that he is not as innocent as he has claimed to be. He, too, is disgraced.
At the end of the film, Nader and Simin are finally allowed to divorce. And because nothing escapes the separation intact, Termeh is forced to choose between them – the most devastating moment in a film full of moments that will devastate you.