Four years after abandoning his family and moving to Iran, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France to sign the divorce papers with his soon-to-be ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this performance). They meet at the airport – catching eyes through a glass barrier, a physical illustration of the emotional distance between them – before driving to their old home where Marie’s daughters, the very young Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and teenaged Lucie (Pauline Burlet), await. In Ahmad’s absence, Marie has entered a complicated relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), an Arab man whose wife is in a coma after attempting suicide.
“The Past” starts with a tightly compacted ball of a narrative that unravels as if kicked down the stairs at the arrival of Ahmad in France. Marie and Samir are sensitive to the awkward situation but things quickly get out of hand when Ahmad inserts himself into the lives of this new, disjointed family – uncovering details about the circumstances of Samir’s wife’s suicide and attempting to bond with and better understand Lucie (the closest he has to a daughter) despite her destructive attitude and avid hatred of Samir.
Director Asghar Farhadi is no newcomer to crafting high-tension domestic drama. His 2011 Iranian film “A Separation” won an Academy Award and the Golden Bear for Best Film in Berlin. “The Past,” another engrossing episode of lost love and persisting affection is a work of no lesser quality (although it is inexcusably absent from the Academy’s shortlist for this year’s Oscars). Well written and naturalistically acted, “The Past” is capable of striking notes as far-flung as romantic comedy and tense thrills. Ahmad’s probings into the affairs of Marie’s family sometimes play like a mystery. You may want to pause the film at certain points to quickly sketch out a flowchart tracking each character’s motivations. As we (and Ahmad) learn more about Marie and Samir’s romance, it becomes clear that everyone has a weakness or secondary desire at play.
Farhadi avoids locking us in to a single point of view. Rather than seeing the world through only one character’s eyes, Ahmad, Marie, and Samir each get their time alone with the camera. We sympathize with whichever character seems to be in the right at a given moment. Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”) in particular is successful at conveying the double-truths involved in her affair with a technically married man and her unresolved love for Ahmad. Marie has invited Ahmad back not just to sign the papers, but for help. She’s lost in a mind game of what’s right for her and what’s morally reputable. Bejo bounces off the male actors – Mosaffa and Rahim – with commanding presence, demanding respect as both a character and an actress.
Visually, Mahmoud Kalari photographed the film and makes impressive use of the cramped interiors of Marie’s home by letting light become the primary stylistic element in his shots. Kalari uses the entire brightness range, sometimes within a single frame, and keeps each scene visually enticing despite not having many locations to work with. The look has a very unique sense of realism without the usually accompanying grit. The image is cleaner and better lit than similar approaches to narrative cinematography that have documentarian flare, yet still leagues away from the level of polish that would be found in an American remake. Production designer Claude Lenoir adds a wonderful pass of clutter to all of the environments, from Marie’s well lived-in home to the Laundromat that Samir owns. This is an easy one to really buy-in to; the production is nearly invisible.
Already out of a chance at an Oscar nomination this year for Best Foreign Language Film, “The Past,” sadly, may not be seen by as many English-speaking audiences as “A Separation,” but it’s also a good reminder that awards aren’t the end-all for worthwhile international films – family drama doesn’t come much better than this.
Farhadi challenges us: what will the truth change? What is it worth after the emotional damage has been done? He also gives us a simply devastating closing scene that serves to further demonstrate how answers only give way to further questions. When all we have are lies, assumptions, and misinterpretations – we use the past to put together the pieces of our fractured present.
French and Persian with English subtitles
US Limited Release: January 2014 (Check local listings for availability) | UK Limited Release: TBA
2 hrs. 10 min.