The Iranian film (2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film) A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a window onto the court-ruled lives of modern Iranians. The story opens with Simin, a woman in her thirties, seeking divorce from her husband, Nader. The sticking-point is that Simin wants to leave the country, and take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader is willing to allow divorce, but he wants Termeh to stay with him. His Alzheimer's-stricken father, who lives with them, cannot travel, and he won't leave him. Simin oversimplifies matters - Nader should come with her: his father doesn't know him anyway, she claims, so anyone could look after him - nothing would stand in her way. She sees his refusal as stubbornness and antipathy. But as the story unfolds, we see that Nader's father does in fact know his family, and needs them.
Simin walks out, so to care for his father while he's at work, Nader hires a caregiver. This woman, who comes with her 4-year-old daughter, is so pious that before helping, she consults an imam, asking if assisting a senile man who has soiled himself is a sin. But she is also pregnant, which her little girl knows but is a secret from Nader - and from Simin, who provided her name. According to the law, this woman must have her husband's permission to work for Nader. The men meet and Nader thinks the man will be coming to look after his father - instead, it's the woman who continues to come, though her long bus commute and trek up multiple flights of stairs to Nader's apartment exhaust her.
Spoiler Alert - read no further if you plan to see the film!
Nader comes home early and discovers his father alone, crumpled on the floor barely alive, one arm tied to his bed-frame. In his rage, Nader sees that the cash he had set aside to pay the woman is gone. When she and her daughter return from their errand, he confronts her, accusing her of theft. She argues, and he pushes her out of his apartment.
Next thing we know, Nader is informed that the woman fell on the stairs and miscarried, and therefore he is charged with murder of the 19-week-old fetus. He and Simin, concerned when they hear the woman is hospitalized, go to visit her, only to be confronted by her angry distraught husband who declares they have only come out of guilt. The men are soon at each other's throats.
The referee requires witnesses; clearly this arbiter of justice is exasperated trying to get to the bottom of who knew what, whether Nader pushed the woman, whether he knew she was pregnant, why the woman tied his father to his bed then left - the story becomes more convoluted. Costly bail is set which Simin's wealthy parents willingly pay, while we learn that the caregiver's husband was recently in debtor's prison and takes several medications to treat mental illness. More and more, Simin's plan to leave Iran looks like the choice of a person of means.
Simin continues to negotiate with the woman, forcing Nader into a position of having to say he knew the woman was pregnant when he pushed her, or else face prison time. He doesn't want a deal, he wants justice. The other man also wants justice, which to him appears to mean that others must suffer as he has. He stalks Termeh at her school, which throws Simin into panic, her own role in Termeh's anguish quickly forgotten.
At every turn, Termeh is forced to bear witness to her parents' behavior. She wants only for her mother and father to stay together, and she'll say whatever she thinks will enable that - but they withhold what they know, urging her to "tell the truth" though she knows that will not help. She's constantly weighing what they tell her - If I say this, will Mom stay with Dad? If I say that, will Mom leave for sure? It's heartbreaking.
This glimpse into a society as litigious as modern America is depressing: Sharia (Quranic law) solves nothing - piety is just one more weapon people use against each other. Class divisions spark resentment and jealousy, and justice is blind. When Nader is first charged with murder, he pleads with the judge: who will care for his father if he's in prison? But it's not the judge's problem.
At the end, Simin, Nader and Termeh are again meeting with a judge about the divorce, this time to determine custody. By now Nader has passed the burden to their daughter - whichever parent she chooses, he'll agree. The judge asks Termeh if she has decided, she says yes. But she won't utter the name. He presses, she continues to say yes, she's decided. Tears flood her face. He sends Simin and Nader out into the corridor, which is filled with petitioners, some bickering and others slumped in chairs in a scene out of Kafka. They wait as the credits roll.