The story starts with a married couple, Simin and Nader, in front of the judge. Simin is arguing her case for a divorce. She wants to take their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, and leave Iran for the United States. Nader, however, refuses to leave his frail Alzheimer-ridden father. "Does he even know you are his son?" reasons Simin. Nader responds, "I know he is my father". With these lines we have the beginning of a film that deals with all the nebulous areas when duty and loyalty are called into question, and when one must ask questions like, "Is it always over-archingly important to tell the truth?"
The story starts to become complicated as Simin leaves Nader and Termeh and goes to her mother's house. Nader is forced to hire someone to look after his incapacitated father while he works and Termeh goes to school. Enter Razieh, a devout and superstitious matron, who struggles from day one to take proper care of the old man. She has a long commute to come to work with her little girl in tow, and she is quite heavily pregnant.
Not giving away crucial events of the story, one day Nader returns to find that Razieh has done something unforgivable. He shoves Razieh out the apartment door and leaves weeping helped down the stairs by some passing neighbours. What ensues is a series of "he says" vs "she says" in a court room. Razieh has lost her baby, she blames her miscarriage on Nader's ill-treatment. Nader is accused of murder and arrested. In turn he files a case against Razieh for ill-treating his father. Razieh's hot-tempered husband finally makes an appearance, irate at the loss of his unborn child and determined to get his blood money.
The drama of the story hinges on several questions. Did Nader know Razieh was pregnant when he employed her? His wife and Termeh seem to think he did. Is the religious Razieh strictly truthful? Why does Simin assume her husband is guilty of allegedly pushing Razieh down the stairs?
Perhaps these seem like petty little questions in a small domestic drama, but this framework of inter-locking questions in the skilled hands of Farhadi's direction, opens up a world of ambiguity and questions. No one is quite telling the truth, no one is quite the bad guy. Even Termeh, the innocent teenager caught between her two parents is forced to equivocate at one point.
A film like A Separation (made for under a million dollars), is the truest kind of counter-point to a big budget Hollywood melodrama, a gem-like, multi-faceted film that keeps one talking, and thinking, long after it is over.