At first, A Separation appears to be about just that: A separation. When we first meet Nader and Simin (Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami, respectively) in the opening moments of the film, they’re applying to a judge for a divorce. Not for anything that either of them did, mind you, it’s just that Simin put in a ton of time and money for a visa that’s set to expire in 40 days. She wants to leave and start a new life outside of Iran (exactly where, she never says), he insists that he can’t leave, and the judge doesn’t find this a suitable reason to divorce. So the couple live apart from each other until they can get everything straightened out.

This in itself might be enough to sustain a two-hour movie. But to my surprise, this storyline isn’t actually the movie’s primary focus. It’s a crucial part of the proceedings, don’t get me wrong, but it’s only one reason out of many why the characters’ lives are about to get so incredibly complicated.

See, there are two reasons why Simin can’t go and leave Iran outright. First is Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Simin’s 11-year-old daughter, who’s staying on the insistence of her father and herself. Second and far more importantly, Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) is an elderly man who’s been made a hopeless vegetable by an increasingly bad case of Alzheimer’s. Caring for his dad is naturally too much work for any one man, so Nader hires one of his wife’s acquaintances (Razieh, played by Sareh Bayat) as a part-time nurse. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons — her religion and her pregnancy among them — the job proves far too much for Razieh to handle.

Long story short (too late!), Nader goes into a blind rage and ejects Razieh from his apartment. And a short time later, Razieh miscarries. So now, on top of everything else, Nader has to avoid a murder charge by somehow proving that he wasn’t responsible for accidentally killing Razieh’s unborn child.

To summarize, this movie is about people in situations they are not equipped to handle. Nader, for example, can’t care for his father and he can barely raise his daughter, yet his pride and his affection for both compel him to do both on his own. The murder case is even worse, as Nader’s desperation, his sense of justice, and — again — his pride forbid him from admitting guilt without concrete proof. He simply will not pay a settlement, no matter how much the case threatens him or his family.

That brings me to Razieh’s husband, Houjat, played by Shahab Hosseini. It’s obvious very early on that much like Nader, Houjat is simply too proud and desperate to admit that his unborn son’s death was an accident. But unlike Nader, who apparently just wants to forget the whole thing, Houjat is looking for blood. He’ll lash out at anyone in arm’s reach, threatening, insulting, and physically attacking anyone who gets in the way of his vengeance. He simply doesn’t have the emotional capability to handle the situation in any mature way.

I won’t even get started on Razieh herself. The whole thing started because of her disastrous inability to care for Nader’s father, and her religion does nothing to help her sort through all the lies, truths, and secrets that get thrown around in the trial.

As for Simin, she mostly tries to be the peacekeeper of the bunch. She’s uniquely situated as a liaison between Nader and Razieh, and she just wants the whole thing over with so that Houjat won’t do anything rash to Termeh. Speaking of which, Termeh provides a similar role for Nader and Simin. It’s heavily implied that she’s trying to keep her parents together for as long as possible, and she also has a second job as Nader’s part-time moral compass. Unfortunately, both Simin and Termeh are dealing with personalities that are much too forceful for either of them to deal with.

Yet for all the hearts being broken and the lives being shattered, it’s hard to call anyone the villain of the piece. Nader’s father is a root cause of his son’s misery, but can we blame him for going senile? Nader alienates himself completely over the course of the movie, though it’s only because he takes his father’s care so seriously and because he refuses punishment for a crime he honestly believes he didn’t commit. Houjat is mad to the point of homicidal insanity, but his wife just had a miscarriage. The judge is completely impartial to all the emotional pleas going on around him, but that’s part of his job. Razieh has to submit to her husband because of Islamic faith, Simin just wants a better life for her family abroad, and so on.

Though not everyone acts reasonable, they’re all acting in their own self-interest and with the best intentions. In other words, these characters are all written and portrayed in a wonderfully three-dimensional way. Not only does this make the proceedings all the more tragic, but it makes a few particular shouting matches absolutely captivating to watch.

There’s really only one time when I thought this movie stumbled, but it was a big one. Though the trial’s resolution was executed brilliantly, and the set-up was clever enough that it didn’t technically count as a deus ex machina, it still felt entirely too pat. It was an absurdly simple solution to an extraordinarily complex set of problems, and it removes a critical layer of nuance to one or more characters that had previously been very difficult to blame entirely.

That said, the resolution doesn’t wrap up the entire movie in a neat little bow. There are still a lot of issues left to be addressed, Termeh’s situation not the least of them, but that’s life. And anyway, those problems had been lurking in the background throughout the entire picture. Maybe at the end of the film, these characters will be wiser for the wear and better equipped to deal with their challenges.

If you’re not partial to foreign films, A Separation probably won’t be the film to change your mind. If you’re looking for feel-good movies, this isn’t the movie for you. But if you’re interested in wonderfully realized characters acting out a heartfelt and cleverly plotted story (from Iran, of all places!) then this is a movie you’ll definitely appreciate. It’s a movie that will stay with you as you leave the theater, I guarantee it.