A quietly lacerating portrait of familial discord that morphs into a wider portrait of society and law, “A Separation” is extraordinary in its ability to avoid taking sides among its contentious characters while subtly detailing the barriers they erect between one another and avoiding the slightest hint of the maudlin. In the wrong hands it might have degenerated into soap-operatic mawkishness; here it emerges as an acutely observed domestic drama that serves as an entrée into broader issues of class, religion and justice. If such a film were made in America, it would be a remarkable achievement. That it comes from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi makes it no less so—and no less relevant to a US audience, because while the setting might be foreign, its concerns are universal.

The film begins with a middle-class couple, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), addressing a magistrate—and the audience—directly about a possible divorce. She admits her husband’s decency, but wants to emigrate, which he refuses to do. He replies that he can’t leave because he must care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who’s suffering from dementia and unable to live on his own. The session ends inconclusively, but Simin decides to leave and stay with her mother (Shirin Yazdanbakhsh)—though whether she intends the separation to become permanent is unclear. Their young daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), a serious, studious child, remains with her father.

Suddenly needing a caregiver to watch over his father while he’s at work, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a sad-faced, chador-covered woman desperately in need of income because her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) is out of work and being hounded by creditors. She has a long commute each day and must bring her little daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) with her, but of even greater import is that her religious scruples conflict with her being alone with a strange man and that her hotheaded husband would be furious if he knew she’d taken such a job. In addition, she’s pregnant—making any sort of exertion a problem for her.

The plot kicks in when Nader arrives home one day to find his father alone, tied to the bed he’s fallen out of. When Razieh returns, he summarily fires her and pushes her out of the apartment. She slips on the stairs, falls, and suffers a miscarriage. Before long Hodjat brings an accusation against him and Nader is charged with the murder of an unborn child. Nader refuses to pay the compensatory “blood money” that could keep him out of jail and countersues Razieh for negligence in her duties. (He’s also accused her of theft, though whether that becomes part of his case is unclear.)

Legally and morally, the issues revolve around ambiguities. Did Nader know that Razieh was pregnant? (He claims not, and Termeh’s tutor, played by Merila Zarei, will be drawn in to testify on the matter.) Should Razieh have taken a job she knew her husband would never have allowed? And where did she go off to on the day in question, leaving the old man unattended? (We know that she’d already allowed her patient to wander into the street once before, so she wasn’t unaware of the danger.) Is Simin the ultimate culprit, since, as Termeh observes, nothing would have happened had she not left?

“A Separation” is filled with such questions. Some it answers; others it allows to remain unresolved. And it fashions its characters so that none are completely right or wrong. We can sympathize with Nader’s concern for his father, but he’s also rigid and imperious, and seems to have no trouble in shading the truth. We can appreciate Simin’s desire for greater freedom and opportunity, but suspect that she’s evading her responsibilities simply in order to force Nader into showing her some affection. And in the end she effectively betrays Razieh, who’s approached her for help. As for Razieh, we might admire her devout attitudes even if we consider them excessive; but her negligence is obvious, and her habit of keeping secrets harmful. And while we can understand Hodjat’s rage at the system, his inability to control his temper is counterproductive and his attitude toward women—including his wife—archaic from the western perspective. There are no heroes or villains here, only people who are all flawed in different ways and desperate to make the best of an awful situation, hurting one another in the process.

And we can see our own failings in them, not only in watching from our seats in the theatre but through the eyes of those who observe them in the film. We can understand the perspective of the tutor who must choose between loyalty and honesty. We can comprehend the frustration of the magistrates who must try to deal with these unruly people who expect them to solve the issues that divide them. But most importantly, we feel the pain of what’s happening through the eyes of the children, who watch the absurdity of their elders’ actions with a bewilderment we can share.

Farhadi’s script is compact and crisp, and he draws naturalistic, unforced performances from all his cast. He and cameraman Mahmood Kalan also use space brilliantly to accentuate the story’s ideas. Doors and partitions shutting people off from one another are a constant motif—reaching a crescendo in the very last image set in a courthouse hallway—and they create a sense of claustrophobia even in the crowded street scenes, especially inside cramped cars.

“A Separation” raises potent issues of gender, religion and human relationships in a way that transcends national and linguistic barriers and avoids easy judgments, leaving viewers to come to their own conclusions. Don’t let the fact that it’s in Farsi prevent you from experiencing this richly challenging drama.