by Kathie Smith
Although Asghar Fahardi’s The Past takes place a continent away from the setting of his previous film, A Separation, its themes reside no more than a stone’s throw away, tendered with similar delicate bravado. Once again using the pretext of an impending divorce, this Parisian-set drama delivers a window on the world of quiet emotional chaos. But Farhadi’s craft eludes melodramatic platitudes by slowly disclosing the furtive layers of a simple story, done with a cast that excels from top to bottom. At the very top is by Bérénice Bejo—the actress that won the world over in The Artist proves that she is far more than a pretty face and drives The Past with down-to-earth magnanimity.
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Alexa Rivero
Writers: Asghar Farhadi, Massoumeh Lahidji
Cinematographer: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeane Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani
Premiere: May 17, 2013 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 20, 2013
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The film opens with Marie (Bejo) anxiously waiting behind a pane of security glass at the airport for Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). As if commenting on her previous role, Bejo reveals a barrage of silent disclosures about herself as she waves to get Ahmad’s attention. She’s wearing a brace on her wrist, and—making the realization that she doesn’t want to fully explain this injury—she takes the brace off and subsequently reveals the first of many secrets to emerge from the narrative. But the magic of this scene occurs when Marie finally gets Ahmad’s attention: his face turns to tenderness and hers to relieved consolation and love. They speak through the glass, reading each other’s lips as we try and read the emotions of what is obviously an affectionate reunion. Or is it?
Farhadi challenges assumptions about his characters almost at every turn, not because he has given false clues, but because conventions have trained viewers to look, if not seek, black and white definitions. On the drive from the airport, the perception of a happy homecoming falls apart—we ascertain Marie and Ahmad’s alienation from one another despite their familiarity, realize that Ahmad failed to show up for a previously planned visit, and discover, from the identification tucked in the visor of the car, that there is another man in Marie’s life. In truth, Ahmad has returned to Paris from Iran to finalize his estrangement with Marie with an official divorce, and one that will give Marie the freedom to marry Tamir (Tahar Rahim)—a fact teased out of casual conversations and events.
But this task-oriented visit for Ahmad is anything but straightforward, as he confronts the disarray of a family that he, for reasons unspecified, abandoned four years ago. The disorder of Marie’s modest house reflects her halfhearted attempt to move on from Ahmad to Tamir. Marie’s two daughters from a previous marriage, Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), further complicate Ahmad and Marie’s unresolved issues. This is especially the case with her teenage daughter Lucie, who sees Ahmad as her ally and her mother’s new partner Tamir as her enemy. Similarly, Tamir’s tempestuous young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), simmers with frustration about circumstances that are bewilderingly out of his control. The Past is a narrative told through the dynamic interactions of characters—textured by the emotional space granted and nuanced by the human imperfection represented.
Compared to the explosive episodes of A Separation, the trajectory and discoveries of The Past are guided with what seems to be a more subtle hand, albeit with equal amounts of mystery and tragedy that could, in other hands, come off as contrived. Farhadi gives his characters, both young and old, their own unique potency that acts and reacts both with and against one another with an organic unpredictability—the trio of fragile and impressionable kids balanced by a trio of vulnerable and perhaps misguided adults, each with facets harnessed by Farhadi’s own situation room. But contrary to a didactic treatise on the ill effects of the mature on the innocent, The Past measures the consequences of both with a gentle push-pull of subjectivity to the power of six. Farhadi’s scenario may be a cooked-up soap opera with no resolution, but his unprecedented patience and empathy towards the material is a dramatic rarity.