With About Elly and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi proved himself to be one of the most interesting and exciting cinematic talents to come out of Iran. With The Past, his first film made outside of Iran, Farhadi has made another powerfully humane and non-judgemental drama about people.
The plot of The Past, like that of any Farhadi film, is difficult to describe since it is best to watch the film with no prior knowledge, all the better to appreciate how intricately the story unravels. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris from Tehran and is picked up by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). Ahmad has returned in order to sign divorce papers so that Marie may marry her new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). However, there may be more than one reason for Marie’s insistence that Ahmad return. Equally, there seems to be something wrong with the three children living under Marie’s roof – her two daughters Lucie and Léa (Pauline Burlet and Jeanne Jestin) and Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad, playing the peacekeeper, slowly but surely unravels a whole host of dark secrets and resentments.
Not the best synopsis ever written – and that is primarily because I don’t think they really matter – but the joy (if it can be called that) of a Farhadi film has always been in their unravelling, challenging the presumptions that the viewer may place on the plot and the characters, only for him or her to realize that they are completely wrong and things are much more complex than their simplistic, and possibly prejudiced, generalisations would suggest. As in A Separation, in which the apparent villain (played by Shahab Hosseini) castigates his accusers – and, hence, the audience – for finding it so easy to blame him, The Past challenges the audience to rethink their initial impressions of each character. As a result, the badly behaved Fouad is revealed to have been deeply disturbed by something he has witnessed, the seemingly unstable Marie is helplessly trapped with a horrible dilemma and the tough Samir is suffering from either extreme guilt or extreme remorse. The Past is a very well constructed and moving drama, but it is also a call for greater communication and understanding – Ahmad is often seen telling people to sit down and talk things through. As in A Separation, there is no overtly guilty party, simply a group of people trying to do what they think is right.
With The Past, Farhadi in some ways hones his craft even further. Large parts of the film are set under one roof and the film’s focus is on the difficulties of one family – albeit one extended and complicated by divorce. The film begins slowly, with everyday arguments about being late and bad parking giving an initial clue that everything is not quite all right in this household. Ahmad and Samir’s first meeting is subtly played as a comic macho challenge as Ahmad fixes a blocking pipe, irritating and offending Samir. Ultimately, the entire drama is based on the repercussions of a stained dress – a seemingly mundane object, which causes a deeply volatile situation to explode out in several directions.
The performances – as can be expected now from a Farhadi film – are uniformly excellent. Bejo won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, doing very well with a role that is, frankly, underwritten. A Separation has already proven Farhadi’s ability to get great performances from child actors, but one scene set in the subway in which Samir has to tell Fouad some difficult truths contains a brilliant performance from Elyes Aguis, particularly when one considers the difficulty of the scene and the fact that it is filmed in long takes. Rahim and Mosaffa are also both fantastic as well. Everyone plays what are clearly intended to be ‘real people’, with great subtlety and honesty and without patronising or mocking.
Arguably, The Past is simply a film about people in difficult situations – it does not really have the contemporary significance or national critique of About Elly or A Separation (although its presence in these two films may have been exaggerated by a Western media preferring to see everything from Iran as a comment specifically on Iran). It is a humane and sympathetic drama, tightly structured and scripted, emotionally draining and full of great performances. Though ultimatley less successful than Farhadi’s previous two films – both of which have better developed female characters – The Past is a great drama about the need for compassion, trust and understanding.
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