About once a year, a film comes along that I have absolutely no interest in seeing. This year—and this is only March!—that honor belonged to A Separation. An Iranian family drama in Farsi with subtitles? Pass.

How wrong I was:

Simin (Leila Hatami) sues her husband, Nader (Peyman Maadi), for divorce. They make their cases directly to the camera, positioned where the judge would sit. The judge, who says both parties must agree to a divorce, denies Simin’s request.

Simin moves in with her parents, while Nader stays in the family apartment with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), who’s heartbroken by the split. Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout woman, to watch his Alzheimer’s-stricken father during the day. The job proves too much for her, physically and emotionally, and she wonders whether it’s an appropriate job for a married woman (at one point, Nader’s father soils his pants, and she has to change him).

She suggests to Nader that he hire her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), but he has a big temper and a lot of debt, and it lands him in jail before he can take over for his wife.

Razieh stays on to watch Nader’s father and a difficult situation quickly gets worse. Razieh neglects the old man, though one wonders whether even Nader could properly handle him; Nader accuses her of stealing. Misunderstandings follow, as well  as a borderline physical altercation between the two of them, then another between Nader and Hodjat. They all wind up in court facing life-altering charges.

What happens next is serpentine and so tense that every budding thriller director should be forced to watch A Separation for a lesson in building character-driven suspense. It’s all talk, but as each character struggles with just how honest to be—with himself or herself, with a spouse, with a judge—and each decision seems to be wrong, we watch them twist themselves into knots as they struggle to do the right thing.

Much has been made of the way the film doesn’t choose sides between the middle class and agnostic Simin and Nader, and the working class and devout Razieh and Hodjat. It’s for the best. In the world these characters inhabit—a world where the religious, socioeconomic and gender lines are foreign to us—complete honesty could get them all in a lot of trouble.

If A Separation has one fault, it’s that Simin and Nader’s daughter, Termeh, at times seems to exist solely to fill the role of moral compass. But eventually, even she surprises us. 

How everything shakes out for the characters is surprising, sad and perhaps inevitable. Director Asghar Farhadi has said he wants audiences to come away from the film with questions. Each character gains our sympathy, loses it and repeats the process at some point during the film.

Farhadi’s film is so engrossing—so well written, directed and acted—that it seems a crime most American moviegoers will spend the weekend choosing between Journey 2 and This Means War, while dismissing A Separation because subtitles are inconvenient. Too bad: A Separation may be the best movie I’ve seen in a decade.

A Separation
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
With Leila Hatami, Peyman Maadi and Sareh Bayat
123 min.