Critics are going crazy for A Separation, the Iranian film by Asghar Farhadi that Roger Ebert named the best film of 2011. It currently has a perfect 100% score on RottenTomatoes.com and ranked #3 (behind The Tree of Life and Melancholia) on the IndieWire critic's survey of the best films of 2011. It's the odds-on favorite to win the best foreign film Oscar.
Is it as good as the hype indicates? Yes, mostly.
A tender, nuanced portrait of modern city life in Tehran, A Separation is not a political or statement film. It's a film about people and their struggles, specifically two families whose fates become perilously intertwined. It's about an educated, secular middle class couple going through divorce, and their daughter who suffers in between a mother and father vying for custody. But it's also about a lower class, religious family (also raising a young daughter) who find themselves in a his-word-against-mine legal struggle with the more resourced and eloquent middle class family.
Who are the heroes and villains in A Separation? There aren't any. Perhaps the heroes are the two innocent girls, and the villains are systemic: an outmoded legal system, religiously justified oppression, class disparity. The beauty of the film is that has no agenda aside from immersing us in a world--something cinema does exceptionally well. It simply presents a slice of life--the struggles of a handful of everyday Iranians going through a particularly stressful stretch. And yet as contextual as the film is--many of the textures of its conflicts are Iranian to the core--it is also simply human.
The film humanizes Iran and gives it a face--a face that is not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a face that, under duress and in love, fear, anger, etc., looks awfully like our own. I suspect this is why critics have hailed the film as they have. It is exotic, foreign, and Other; and yet it is universal.
My only hesitation in crowning the film as some have is that it sometimes feels a bit too ambitious--trying to cover too much ground (gender politics, class, religion, family strife, justice, truth, education, etc.). It sometimes feels like an attempt at "modern Iranian life in a grain of sand," which imposes an unnecessarily weighty burden on an otherwise believable and well-observed family portrait.
Still, it's a superbly acted, beautifully made film. It is brilliantly observational and unsentimental, reminiscent of the quiet-but-powerful style of the Dardenne Brothers. For western audiences, it's also a helpful glimpse inside a country that--beneath the "axis of evil" simplifications of political and media narratives--is full of people like you and I: family-oriented folks who have good moments and bad, but mostly want to do what's right.