Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi's poignant film A Separation takes a long, fascinating look at the Iranian justice system. Presenting itself as about a couple's potential divorce, the film spends a ton of screen time covering a legal dispute between the husband, Nader (a handsome Peyman Moadi), and the caregiver he hires to watch his sick father after his wife, Simin (the elegant Leila Hatami), moves out. The conversations between the judge and the participants in the case are often startlingly informal—people plead with him, argue with him, whisper to him, try to grab his hand as he signs documents.

The caregiver, Razieh (Sareh Bayat, shrinking and sad), is a devout Muslim who wears a chador, the head-to-toe black cloak, every moment she's outside the home. Watching her sprint down a staircase after the escaped father, who has Alzheimer's, is captivating—the black fabric swirls around her in a storm of rippling folds. When the patient soils himself, Razieh has to call someone to ask if it would be a sin to touch him, to clean him up.

Watching Simin and Nader argue (she wants to move away from Iran to give their daughter a better education, he wants to stay and care for his father), you get the feeling that they're fighting just for the sake of fighting. There's something hollow and bruised and stubborn about it, like if at any moment one of them were to offer a sign of contrition, the other would sigh in exhausted relief and they could just get back to their lives. But neither can do this, or when one does, the offering lands somewhere strange and unreachable. Sarina Farhadi has a heartbreaking role as their daughter, trying like only an 11-year-old can to hold her family together.

This is a story about people messing up in small, stupid ways that have big consequences: lying, letting the wrong things go unsaid, pride getting in the way of important decisions, punishing children for their parents' actions. In that way, it is deeply depressing. But as a cultural study and a visual experience, especially for those unfamiliar with modern Iranian life, it's a neat little window into one marriage, one apartment, one small riot of rage and grief and intransigence, and a lot of it is very beautiful to look at. recommended