“It is only a small problem,” says the official (Babak Karimi) when he dismisses Nader and Simin’s (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) request for a divorce. But what he deems trivial feels like an irreconcilable difference to the couple.
Simin wants to leave their home country of Iran and seek a brighter future abroad for their daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). She has worked a long time to get the required permits for the move, and now that the paperwork is done Nader refuses to come with them. He argues that he cannot abandon his duty to care for his aging father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), even though the Alzheimer’s sufferer usually can’t remember who his son is. Hoping to keep her parents together, Termeh diplomatically chooses to stay with her Dad when her Mom moves out, believing her mother will never leave the country without her.
Then, almost as if the official’s judgment was prophetic, a truly serious problem eclipses the spouses’ ongoing disagreement. A domestic dispute with a housekeeper (Sareh Bayat) temporarily hired to watch over Nader’s invalid father turns into accusations of elder neglect (from him) and employer abuse (from her). And when the pregnant maid miscarries, Nader is faced with the additional charge of murdering her unborn child.
The grave situation plays out against a backdrop of unbending social, political and religious laws, that are further complicated by male pride, strict women’s roles, mental illness and dire poverty. And the stakes are high. Nader could be facing a jail sentence. The housekeeper’s unemployed husband (Shahab Hosseini) could receive a cash settlement. Anxious to make their best case, each opponent resorts to desperate measures including harassing uncooperative witnesses and compromising their moral ethics. While the mounting pressure reveals the various individual’s virtues and vices, the fact remains that their fate rests in the hands of a single government official.
This foreign language film, with English subtitles, contains only a couple of violent scenes (a fistfight and a character hitting himself), a few profanities and mild depictions of elder abuse. Yet it likely won’t appeal to a younger audience because following the intricacies of the quiet plot requires a great deal of concentration. As well, appreciation will vary depending on the viewer’s understanding of the complex cultures depicted. Still, while I know I missed much of the significance of the subtle societal portrayals, I had no trouble interpreting the tenseness of the situation or relating to how minor moments of indiscretion can lead to major problems. Those willing to invest the effort will also find human foibles have no boundaries, and that life’s dilemmas are very much the same regardless of country or birth.