Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Berenice Bejo, Ali Mossafa, Tahir Rahim, Pauline Burnet, Elyes Agius.
The Golden Globes certainly got it wrong this year! The Hollywood Foreign Press Association awarded their Best Foreign Language Film gong to the dull, pretentious and self-indulgent Italian film The Great Beauty ahead of the far superior Danish drama The Hunt or The Past, the new drama from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi won an Oscar for his previous film A Separation, the quiet but searing drama about a couple seeking to get a divorce and the bureaucracy they have to deal with.
His latest film is another domestic drama dealing with marital breakups and an unhappy couple at odd with each other, but The Past is set in contemporary France. This is Farhadi’s film produced outside his native Iran, and the director seems to have more freedom to explore his troubled characters and some intriguing themes that may otherwise not have escaped the attention of the censors back home.
Marie (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist, etc) has asked her husband Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) to return to France so she can finalise their divorce and marry her current boyfriend Samir (Tahir Rahim, from A Prophet, etc), who runs a dry cleaning business. Four years ago, Ahmad returned to his native Iran, leaving Marie to raise her two daughters alone. But now he returns to find a messy and troubled domestic situation, and the house is full of simmering tensions, conflict, repressed emotions and unresolved business.
Marie’s rebellious and uncommunicative teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet, from La Vie En Rose, etc) is sullen and resentful of Samr and often spends lots of time away from the house. Samir’s sullen and precocious young son Foaud (Elyes Agius) is upset at Marie’s presence in his life. And Samir’s own wife lies in a coma at the local hospital after having swallowed chemicals in a suicide attempt after learning of his affair with Marie.
The film is an intricately crafted exploration of jealousy, guilt, dark secrets and damaging lies, dysfunctional families, redemption, the complex nature of relationships, the fallible nature of humans, and the unexpected ways in which past actions can affect the present. But there is also a wonderful ambiguity about the characters and motivations that adds to an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt that shapes the drama. And the film’s ambiguous ending will certainly provoke much debate amongst filmgoers.
Co-written by Farhadi and Massoumeh Lahidji, The Past is a domestic melodrama full of sharp insights and deeper human truths, and it could easily have been the work of Mike Leigh such is its unflinching honesty and emotional realism. Farhadi and his regular cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari often work with long takes and in claustrophobic closeup, and his unflinching static camera heightens the dramatic tension of particular scenes. They also place many physical barriers between the characters, which acts as a nice visual metaphor for the distance between them.
The film opens with an almost wordless sequence as Marie meets Ahmad at the airport, and then drives him through rainy streets. Any conversation is rather mundane and the stuff of ordinary lives. But the opening hour of the film is deceptive as it slowly moves towards more devastating revelations, and discussions between the characters become far more heated and emotionally laden. Farhadi slowly teases out background details about his characters.
And he draws superb insightful and restrained performances from his small cast who flesh out these flawed characters. Bejo (replacing original choice Marion Cotillard) is brittle and fiercely angry as the complicated and frustrated Marie, and her nuanced performance won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. Burlet is full of a palpable sense of anger and confusion as Marie’s angst ridden daughter whose revelation is the catalyst for much of the drama.
In his first film role, young Agiur has a natural presence and brings a relentless energy to his performance as the sullen Foaud. Samir is probably the most sympathetic character here, and Rahim delivers a compassionate performance. Iranian actor Mosaffa is stoic and sympathetic also, and brings authority to his role as a passive observer caught up in a chaotic situation largely beyond his understanding, and he struggles to make sense of what is happening around him.
Farhadi’s direction is deliberately paced and measured, and his probing provides deeper insights into the various characters and slowly reveals crucial pieces of the puzzle driving their actions. For his part, Farhadi is non-judgmental, but audiences will bring to the film their own prejudices and experiences, and their judgments about the characters will merely be a reflection of their own moral outlook.