I was looking up Roger Ebert’s review of this movie to get help explaining my opinion of it (as I usually do) and found that his response is exactly the same as mine, to the point that putting it in my own words wouldn’t even change it one bit. So here it is (edited):
A Separation is a film in which every important character tries to live a good life within the boundaries of the same religion. That this leads them into disharmony and brings them up before a judge is because no list of rules can account for human feelings. The film involves its audience in an unusually direct way, because although we can see the logic of everyone’s position, our emotions often disagree.
The movie takes place in present-day Iran, a modern nation that attempts to live under Islamic law. The film’s story has no quarrel with Islam, but it demonstrates that the inflexible application of the letter of the law may frustrate the spirit of the law. This is true in all nations under all religions and all laws. Laws are an attempt to regulate hypothetical situations before they may arise. If laws were replaced by principles, they might be a better fit with human nature.
That’s what you must know about the plot. The case ends up in the office of an official interrogating judge (Babak Karimi), whose task is to hear evidence and evaluate it. He is a fair man, open-minded, and all the witnesses testify as truthfully as they can. But none of them have possession of all the facts, and the findings must be in accordance with religious law. Nader and Simin are moderate Muslims. Razieh is so religious that she questions whether she can change the underpants of a man, even though he is so old and sick. What drives her is the family’s desperate poverty.
The writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, tells his story with a fair and even hand. His only agenda seems to be to express empathy. Although the judge may be tending against our own sympathies, we understand why he does so and may be correct to do so. That a director can make such a sympathetic film in such a troubled time is a tribute to his strength of character.
and my god isn’t that little girl cute