The Past (Le passé) (Asghar Farhadi – France/Italy) 130 minutes
Having swept practically every award going, including the Best Foreign Film Oscar and the Golden Bear at Berlin, for A Separation, Asghar Farhadi makes his first film outside of Iran. The French-produced The Past gives Farhadi a fresh environment to work in, but it is very much in the vein of all his films to date.
Another separation takes place in this film – Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), a forty-something Iranian returns to Paris after four years back in Tehran to finalise his divorce from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). The divorce is an amicable one and is by far the least complicated thing in the film – it is quickly resolved in a brief scene, where the judge is a far less imposing presence than in A Separation, and Farhadi eschews the claustrophobic subjective camera that ratcheted up the tension of that film from the very beginning. The Past is a more slow-burning film and nothing much happens for the first hour, even though it is clear there are recriminations and painful secrets that are set to rise to the surface at some point later on.
The first hitch is Marie is now living with a new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad, and has not warned Ahmad in advance. But the conflict comes not there, as you might expect, but with Marie’s teenage daughter (from a relationship prior to Ahmad) Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is absenting herself from the home with greater frequency and who is steadfastly set against her mother’s relationship with Samir. The latter’s wife is also in a coma, after an attempted suicide, seemingly after finding out about his affair with Marie. But this is still only the beginning of it, with the motives and resentments of all only being gradually divulged as the film progresses. The past of the title is also not quite as distant as its imposing bareness suggests.
The Past is an exquisitely crafted drama and Farhadi glides effortlessly into a filmmaking environment very different to the one he is used to. The performances are also excellent, particularly Rahim, who, even though it is only four years since he was revealed in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, already looks like a seasoned professional, he is an actor of a rare intelligence and maturity for someone so young. Bejo, more accustomed to comedy, also repays handsomely the surprising choice to cast her instead of Marion Cotillard, who dropped out. Mosaffa is world-weary but generous as the Persian voice of reason, who may not be quite as reasonable as he thinks. His character does however seem to be a bit underwritten – there is little real sense of the sort of relationship Ahmad and Marie had and you get the sense that he is there to function as part-catalyst, part-diegetic father confessor.
For all the film’s qualities, it lacks the internal dynamics of Farhadi’s Iranian work – the logistical and moral imperatives forced on his characters. A feature of his earlier films, Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly as much as A Separation is characters seeking to carve out autonomous spaces for themselves free from the interference of a hostile, prescriptive state. We see this in the hiring of the maid on the black in A Separation and the later efforts to buy her off when things go wrong; it is also implicit in the attempt by the holiday-makers in About Elly to resolve the disappearance of Elly, a girl they barely know, without getting the police involved. One character in The Past is similarly concerned by her relationship with authority – Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani), the young Maghrebine who works in Samir’s dry cleaners as an illegal immigrant. This provides the spur for one vital plot turn but the rest of the characters have more workaday causes of grief. The Past is not a lesser film for this but its drama is implicitly less intense – and less draining – than Farhadi’s films in his home country.
The Past has been very favourably received by critics at Cannes and it is likely to garner an award or two from Steven Spielberg’s jury, most likely for the acting or the screenplay. Farhadi intends to continue living and working in Iran, but in light of the trouble the authorities, piqued by his rapturous welcome in Hollywood, have given him, the option to make more films abroad is one to keep open. And, if The Past is anything to go by, he shouldn’t have any problem doing that.
"THE PAST" by Asghar Farhadi - TRAILER from Memento Films International on Vimeo.