Western filmgoers often seem quite surprised that an Iranian film industry exists at all. I remember one conversation I had when Certified Copy was about to come out, where I mentioned that its director Abbas Kiarostami was from Iran. “Iran?” my companion said surprisedly, “I thought everything was censored there.” A ruling theocracy mediates Iranian culture, but largely unreported by the western press is its flourishing counter-culture – there is an aspirational social class who yearn for civil development and a more accountable government, and a credible opposition in the form of the Green movement, who were the energy behind the protests in response to the 2009 general elections. Popular awareness of Iran is dominated by its politics and particularly its foreign policy but its cinema unveils everyday life in the country, and is a testament that its citizens are able to live and think independently.

For instance, the graphic novel and film Persepolis casts a fantastic light onto the reality of an ordinary family living in the midst of the Iranian revolution in the late 70s. It follows Marjane from a young girl to adolescence as she becomes politically mobilised and representative of a youthful left-wing resistance. While Palme d’Or winning director Abbas Kiarostami is perhaps the best-known Iranian director on the world stage, although he tends to reference social issues in Iran only obliquely, his films are better-known for their playfulness with form and convention, holding a cinematic self-reflexiveness reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard.

But it is Asghar Farhadi, who has won plaudits for his 2009 film About Elly and now A Separation, who thus emerges as the filmic consciousness of Iranian life; cataloguing and documenting the society’s mores for us to  consider at will. The presiding characteristic of his style is an unflinching directness. He is a director obsessed with capturing a sense of realism stirred by authentic performances and situations, which serve to convey the political, ethical and religious dilemmas that bind Iran’s social classes. If anything, this aligns him with British directors like Mike Leigh and Joanna Hogg, with whom Farhadi shares an ability to create compelling drama and tension out of the everyday.

A Separation opens as it means to continue, preventing any single character from holding the moral high-ground and dominating the audience’s sympathy. The tone of the opening image shares this democracy; a mid-level shot of a separating husband and wife, sitting on a low wooden bench in a courtroom, giving their testimony to a judge who is out of the frame. Simin, the wife, wants to leave Iran to let her daughter grow up in a society that is less oppressive to women. Nader, the husband, is obstinate about staying as he can’t abandon his father who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. As no compromise can be reached, the only solution is a divorce so each party can go its separate ways. Nader and Simin have an unsolvable quandary, simultaneously wanting to maintain the family unit, but aspiring for a future in another place that better serves their development. As viewers there is no way to approach this film other than to engage with the dilemma. Unlike Michael Haneke who Farhadi recognises as a major influence, Farhadi is not didactic; the men and women of A Separation are shown for who they are, ensconced in a social climate that never staunchly undermines their interests. The verdict always remains with the audience.

As Simin prepares to move to her mother’s house, it is left to Nader with the sole responsibility of caring for his unwell and incontinent father, and looking after Termeh, his intelligent and always observant daughter. Because of the demands of Nader’s job he cannot care for them 24/7, and so he hires Razieh and Hodjat, a religious working class couple, to take care of  daytime domestic duties. The plot of the film hinges on an episode where Razieh – who is secretly pregnant – leaves the house temporarily to see a gynaecologist and ties Nader’s father to his bed by the wrist, leaving Nader to arrive home finding his dad left neglected and barely conscious. In the ensuing argument, a furious Nader pushes Razieh out the apartment, and she has a miscarriage. The out-of-work and debt-ridden Hodjat files a court case, where the judge rules that if Nader knew that Razieh was pregnant, he will go to jail for murder.

The separation promised by the title doesn’t solely refer to Nader and Simin. It brings into focus the social alienation of modern day Iran; how the clash of lifestyles and values that define the country fail to reconcile. The sense in which the lives of the two couples become entangled is a metaphor for how Iran’s different social factions serve to undermine one another, with each group pushing away from the centre into a locked mutual antagonism. Hodjat, in particular, harbours a stinging class-based resentment, jealous of Nader’s steady employment and relative comfort. There is perhaps a danger that each character is only representative of one wide branch of contemporary Iranian thought, for instance in the way that Razieh’s religious superstition is all too neatly offset by Simin’s westernised view of gender roles. But it is the nuance and naturalism of the acting that really allows us to relate to these characters, never allowing our sympathies to settle, or bring the story into a false sense of clarity.

The other notable separation in this story is between the adults and their children. Termeh slowly becomes the central moral figure, encouraging her father to make a crucial admission at a late stage in the court case. And at the film’s climax she is left with a grave, forbidding decision: to stay in Iran with Nader, or leave with Simin and seek a new life. The judge has already approved her parents’ divorce, and it is up to Termeh to decide who receives custody, a choice that is weighted with an immense moral significance, as it is an affirmation of beliefs as much as love. As the notary waits for her response, she shakes with hesitancy and the credits roll before her decision is delivered. Farhadi’s inconclusive ending is justified here, because this is a film that purposefully avoids a simplistic resolution: within this story’s intricate web of social, familial and religious conflict, no separation can truly be bridged.

Artwork by Thomas G.P. Ball