Asghar Farhadi’s simmering and subtle The Past opens under brilliantly conceived layers bathed in quiet – a hallmark of his searing talkies. An Iranian man we later learned is named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is looking for his luggage on one side of the glass at the Paris airport while a French woman we later learned is named Marie (Bernice Bejo) is trying to get his attention from her side of the glass. It’s a silent film moment, all the more clever on Farhadi’s part as he must assume the international audience knows Bejo best from her role in the silent film, The Artist, a trifling flick that won Oscars in the same year as his substantive masterpiece, A Separation. It turns out Ahmad is there to finalize his divorce with Marie, nearly four years after he left her. Marie awkwardly brings him to her home (the home they presumably once shared) where Ahmad is happy to see Marie’s two daughters while shocked to find her new lover Samir (Tahir Rahim) living there with his young son (Elyes Aguis). Marie is hoping, apart from the signing of the divorce papers, that Ahmad will speak with her increasingly distant teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and hopefully divine what’s troubling her. What’s uncovered is best left unwritten by this reviewer, as to dive any deeper into Farhadi’s tumultuous seas would be a disservice to those viewers who should want to go into the film knowing as little as possible in order to derive the greatest pleasure.
The Past is a subtle powder-keg of a film built moment by moment, character by character, slowly blooming into grand melodrama hung on secrets, lies and repressed emotions. It’s a film about men longing to be wise and wanted and over-staying their welcome in dying relationships. It’s a film about women acting on spite and overflowing with curious emotions that could destroy the world they’ve created. It’s a film about children navigating the minefields of life and misinterpreting the complexities of adult emotions while succumbing to their own feelings of guilt and fear.
Farhadi – like the great short story writer Raymond Carver once did in the America of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s – taps into the fears and concerns of everyday working people…his characters just happen to live in a multi-cultural and dynamic world. His screenplay and direction is littered with novelistic symbolism such as paint spilled or still drying and stains that even dry-cleaning can’t remove. His focus is honed on character and emotion. The characters in his film aren’t so much portrayed by actors as they are by talkers and emoters – his films, next to Woody Allen, are possibly the talkiest films in modern cinema. There are no clean-cut heroes or villains…everyone has their faults…everyone deserves sympathy. Bejo emotes with tiny nervous tremors, Mossafa and Rahim are the epitome of reserved, and the children (Burlet and Aguis) make you believe someone has turned a camera on them to film their most intimate moments. The plot revelations and subdued natural style recall the best work of Mike Leigh. The Past would make a great double-feature with Secrets & Lies.
While it lacks the quasi-thriller mechanizations that made Farhadi’s Tehran set A Separation (both so familiar and so foreign) a masterpiece, The Past is still rife with the same type of melodrama that is the complete opposite of what Hollywood peddles today. There’s no sex or violence – all “action” is internal. Characters are written multi-dimensionally, and the writer-director elicits great performances not to serve ego, but to serve the story. The Past, for all its heartbreak and somewhat salacious details, is a breath of fresh air in a world full of smut.
Written by David H. Schleicher
For The Schleicher Spin on Farhadi’s A Separation…click here.