Asghar Farhadi has already proven he is a magician at translating realistic family drama into heart-wrenching cinema. His last film “A Separation” earned the best foreign picture Oscar in 2012. The Iranian filmmaker also came away with a nomination for best original screenplay. Setting the bar even higher this time around, Farhadi’s “The Past” takes place exclusively in France and uses only French. Even though he does not speak the language, the director is nonetheless able to create another gripping, passionate drama. Extracting performances that are full of emotion, yet do not digress into absurdity, Farhadi accomplishes the all but impossible and makes a fantastic film in a completely foreign language than his own. How many filmmakers can say that?
Following a four year separation, “The Past” tells the story of an Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who returns to Paris from Tehran in order to sign divorce papers. From the moment his plane touches down, however, it becomes immediately apparent that not all the love is lost in his relationship with his French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo). Instead of meeting the woman at a distance, which would be the sensible emotion given the situation, Ahmad and Marie embrace as if still in love when he first arrives. Keeping the audience guessing about their background together, Farhadi frames these former lovers in a way that still shows their tenderness for one another. It is only until they begin to speak that we surmise they are in the process of a divorce.
During Ahmad’s tense, brief stay in Paris, Farhadi continually asks the viewer to reassess the characters in his script. Using the book by Massoumeh Lahidji as the source material, Farhadi keeps all of Ahmad and Marie’s background together hidden from the audience. Little by little, however, the truth rises to the surface. As we gain knowledge, so too does Ahmad. He soon discovers that his daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is struggling with the depression brought on by her parent’s divorce. Making matters even worse, she does not want anything to do with Marie’s new lover Samir (Tahar Rahim).
The unobtrusive, voyeuristic gaze Farhadi takes in framing his motion picture is perfect for the subtlety of the story. Without any major action, the drama of each scene often times deals with learning more and more about the characters.
To pull this off, an excellent cast is necessary. Somehow, even with the language barrier between them, Farhadi is able to communicate with his three central stars (Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, and Berinice Bejo) exceedingly well. The resulting work feels more like a heightened version of real life, with all of its twists and turns, instead of a plot that could have easily fallen into the realm of being a soap opera. Mosaffa, Rahim, and Bejo are always expressive in their actions, but never overwhelmingly so.
What starts out as a seemingly simplistic divorce drama, however, quickly becomes something else all together. As we learn more about Marie’s new lover Samir, the audience finds out that his wife, who he is still very much married to, is in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. At this point, “The Past” shifts its genre focus and becomes more of a mystery as the audience is slowly fed clues in order to figure out why the woman tried to do such a deed. While contrasting significantly with the first part of the story that deals almost exclusively with Ahmad being back in Paris, this second half bait-and-switch pays off. The mystery element definitely adds to the pacing of the story, and gives the plot a certain sense of urgency as Ahmad only has a finite amount of time in France before he must head back to Iran.
This narrative spiral no doubt befuddles the overall meaning of Farhadi’s work. He starts out trying to prove one point, yet finishes with something all together different. In the end, the central goal seem sto have more to do with the reasons why questions are raised rather than figuring out their answers. Audience members wishing for a clear cut ending will be thoroughly disappointed as Farhadi doesn’t give one. Like life, the story is messy and its characters are complex. In the end, there are no easy answers to anything.
While not singularly as remarkable as his Iranian masterpiece “A Separation,” Farhadi’s “The Past” is still a fantastic work of cinema. It has already been nominated for best foreign film at The Golden Globes and will surely continue the award trend as it makes its US debut this Friday.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
By David Morris