The first scene of A Separation, the extraordinary new drama by Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, is a four-minute shot of a husband and wife, Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), seated side by side in straight chairs and addressing the camera as if it were the judge who speaks on the soundtrack. Simin has filed for divorce, and as the judge questions her, a messy family situation begins to spill out: she and Nader have obtained a visa to leave Iran that expires in 40 days, but he refuses to go because of his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and requires constant attention. “Your daughter and her future are not important to you?” Simin demands of her husband. At this point the judge cuts in: “So the children living in this country don’t have a future?” Suddenly the woman is on the defensive. “As a mother, I’d rather she didn’t grow up in these circumstances,” she says carefully, and when pressed to explain, she falls silent. The judge tells them to go home and settle their differences.

The scene is a good example of what makes A Separation such a valuable import from a country so feared and misunderstood by Americans. A tale of two families linked by tragedy, the movie is hugely compelling on a moral and emotional level—I was completely hooked—yet it also revealed to me in numerous small and concrete ways what it’s like to live in a contemporary theocracy. Many of the practical complications in the story are caused by personal religious feeling, and when the two families come into conflict with one another, devotion to the Koran becomes a powerful plot device. Each of the families has a young daughter, and though they’re mostly tangential to the drama going on, the movie ultimately boils down to a version of the question posed by the judge at the beginning: do these two children have any hope of enjoying free, happy lives under the Islamic Republic?

Because of their differences, Simin decides to move out on Nader and stay with her parents, but her quietly heartbroken 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), elects to remain with her father. To care for the old man and do housework, Simin recruits a young, expectant mother, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), who commutes quite a distance with her little daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini in a charming performance). This arrangement begins to go badly almost immediately; on her very first day the old man wets himself, a new development, and Razieh isn’t ready for the situation. As Somayeh bobs back and forth in the old man’s wheelchair, listening, Razieh telephones a religious hotline and explains the situation. “I wanted to know if I change him, will it count as a sin?” she asks. The counselor on the other end of the line reluctantly grants her absolution, but you can feel the pinch of religious dogma on people’s daily lives. At the end of the day Razieh tries to disengage herself from the job, telling Nader, “It’s not right for me to clean him.”

Complicating all this is the fact that Razieh is keeping the job a secret from her hot-tempered husband, Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini), who is besieged by creditors but wouldn’t approve of her working in the home of an unattached man. The situation deteriorates on the second day when the old man manages to escape from the apartment and Razieh is forced to chase after him in the street, a perilous activity given that she’s four months pregnant. On the third day Nader and young Termeh arrive home to find the apartment deserted and the old man collapsed, having been lashed to his bedstand by Razieh before she stepped out for a moment with her daughter. When the two return, a gigantic argument erupts: Nader berates Razieh for leaving the old man, accuses her of stealing, and throws her and her daughter out. “It displeases God,” she reprimands Nader at the door. When she returns a few minutes later to protest his accusation, Nader shoves her out again, and this time she falls on the stairs outside the landing. The next day Nader and Simin learn that the baby was lost, and Nader finds himself charged with murder.

All this transpires in about 40 minutes; Farhadi devotes the rest of his two-hour feature to a prolonged investigation of the whole mess. Unlike the interrogator who opened the film, this one appears onscreen (Babak Kirimi), but he’s just as implacable. The murder charge rests on whether Nader knew Razieh was pregnant when he treated her roughly at the door of his apartment; he protests that her pregnancy was never mentioned and her body was hidden by a chador every time he saw her. The investigation stretches out over several sessions, and in the meantime both families try to come to terms with the situation. For Nader and Simin, the case only complicates their marital strife—Simin’s parents must mortgage their home to provide Nader’s bail—and their wrangling over custody of Termeh. “If you hadn’t left, dad wouldn’t be in jail,” the glum girl tells her mother, though on more than one occasion she also presses her father on whether he’s telling the truth.

The story is driven by Hojjat, the wronged husband, and what drives him is fundamentalist zeal, dangerously mixed with male ego. His antagonizing of Nader in and out of court centers on religious faith. When Nader, insisting he knew nothing of the pregnancy, asks the interrogator if he must swear to God, Hojjat interjects, “Like you believe in God.” This provokes Nader, who snaps, “No, God is for your type only.” Hojjat may have a legitimate grievance in the loss of his child, but he goes off the rails after Nader, not to be outdone, presses charges against Razieh for criminal neglect of his father. After a tutor who visited the apartment testifies in favor of Nader, Hojjat ambushes her at the school and causes a scene, demanding before a crowd of onlookers that she swear on the Koran she was telling the truth. His faith is no act: in a key scene of the movie Hojjat, feeling he has shamed himself before Allah, goes berserk and begins flagellating himself.

For all the religious factors that figure into A Separation, Farhadi seldom engages any of them rhetorically, which may be the reason his movie feels so authentic: Islamic fundamentalism is just part of the wallpaper. This is primarily a human story about a marriage unraveling, the husband torn between love for his daughter and devotion to his father, the daughter torn between one parent and the other. The handheld camera work is intimate and precise, focusing on closed-in spaces and closed-in lives. In a lovely formal gesture, Farhadi ends the movie just as he began it, with another static shot lingering several minutes on Nader and Simin. This time, however, they sit on opposite sides of a hallway, trying not to look at each other, as the credits roll. It’s a wry comment on the title, a literal separation inside the frame, though the most pronounced divide you may feel is between their world and our own.