Film Review: The Past
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi appears to have carved out a comfortable niche for himself in making (what I’d like to call) “domestic thrillers”. With his last two films being the critically-acclaimed About Elly (2009), and 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation, Farhadi has proven himself to be quite adept at telling intimate cautionary tales about the complex nature of marriage, relationships and domesticity; all while injecting an element of suspense that comes with a Bourne movie at the same time. His latest feature, The Past is no different – except this time, the story is told in French.
The Past begins when Iranian man Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa) returns to France after four years to finalise his divorce with Marie (played by the lovely Bérénice Bejo, whom you might recognise as Peppy Miller from The Artist), only to be confronted with the harsh reality of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s relationship with a younger man, Samir (Tahar Rahim). As you can imagine, complications ensue as the titular ‘past’ the characters have been running from finally catches up with them in devastating ways.
The film unfolds at a deliberately measured pace, as Farhadi takes his time to linger on his characters, on their small interactions, however mundane, presenting us with an almost-documentarian feel that echoes the hyperrealism of Michael Haneke’s Amour (it ONLY echoes Haneke, of course. No one can out-Haneke Haneke). This microscopic look at the characters forces the audience to perk up and pay attention, and by showing us how Marie or Ahmad or Samir react to mundane, everyday domestic issues, the film allows us to relate to its characters, and most importantly, allows us to fully invest in them – something that movies like Night Train to Lisbon forgot to do.
The film also handles exposition in a clever way: by making it essential to the plot. Farhadi treats the past as an elusive entity; a mystery to be solved. He drops us right into the eye of the storm that’s brewing in their lives, so that we get a sense that the characters’ present actions are heavily influenced by past transgressions. However, but we’re not quite sure what the details of said transgressions are, therefore we are riddled with questions about their lives: Are Ahmad and Marie’s feelings for each other completely resolved? Why does Lucie (Pauline Burlet) – Marie’s teenage daughter from another marriage – disapprove of her mother’s new relationship with Samir? Speaking of which, what is up with this Samir guy anyhow? etc. Fortunately, the characters ask the same questions as we do, and the journey which Farhadi takes to let the answers unravel is both superbly thrilling and emotionally satisfying, because we not only feel the stakes of what each answer holds for the characters, but we also feel complicit in its discovery.
Of course, revelations in the film would not have packed as much of a punch as it did without its talented cast. In the hands of lesser actors, the characters could easily have been portrayed as melodramatic and veered towards soap-opera territory, but the spectacular performances of the The Past’s ensemble cast grounded the characters as genuine, flawed, and complex human beings. Bejo and Rahim give powerhouse performances as Marie and Samir respectively, but it’s Mosaffa’s subdued portrayal as the contemplative-but-stern Ahmad that is the standout of this film, as he is able to convey so much of what Ahmad is feeling under his calm façade.
By delving deep into its characters’ past, and attempting to give equal weight to each of its three main protagonists, the story of the film feels ‘messier’ and less tightly-plotted than its predecessor (A Separation) but besides that, it is a triumphant follow-up. The Past is a masterfully-performed and emotionally-gripping exploration into the intricate nature of our past, along with its inevitable hold on our present.
4 ½ out of 5 Bejo (in The Artist) faces
The Past is screening currently at the Joondalup Pines Cinema as a part of Lotterywest's Festival Films until the 9th of February. Tickets are available here.