The PastFebruary 28, 2014
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa,Tahar Rahimcq PM
Director: Asghar Farhadicq PM
Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
Running time: 130 minutes
Remarkably assured and hyper-realistic, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is a compelling, emotionally devastating film that follows many of the conventions of the so-called Dogme 95 movement (and its less pretentious American cousin, Mumblecore). That’s to say there’s no music to underline or prompt, and there are no flashbacks or voiceovers or any other type of unnatural narrative cues. The story is driven by the words the characters say. None of the characters is omniscient or has complete understanding of the situation, although they may believe they do.
Most people will likely perceive The Past as a French film, for it is set in Paris and most of the dialogue is in French. But it is Iran’s official Academy Awards entry, although it shockingly didn’t make the shortlist of nominees for Best Foreign Language Picture. While I haven’t seen all the foreign films in this year’s competition, The Past is certainly a movie of that sort of quality. I prefer it to Farhadi’s Oscar-winning drama A Separation, which feels like a companion piece in that it also deals with decent, intelligent people trying to sort out seemingly intractable marital problems.
Marie Brisson (Berenice Bejo, best known to American audiences for her upbeat role in The Artist) is a French woman whose Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) left her to return to Tehran. She is the mother of two girls — 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and younger Lea (Jeanne Jestin) — who arrived before Ahmad came on the scene. While they are fond of him, they regard Ahmad less as a father figure than a man who used to sleep with their mother. Lucie in particular likes Ahmad — or maybe she just resents Samir (Tahar Rahim), her mother’s new boyfriend, who has a young stepson, Fouad(Elyes Aguis), as well as a wife in a coma.
When Ahmad returns to Paris to finalize their divorce, Marie insists he stay at her house where she’s living with her daughters as well as with Samir and Fouad. (Depending on your perspective, you might consider Marie’s invitation imminently sensible because after all they’re adults, or like the setup for an episode of the Showtime series Shameless.)
While things are civil on the surface, we soon understand that even the simplest interactions are freighted. These people have histories and secrets and Farhadi never requires them to give it up. We know what we know by observing it, not because the characters take a moment to explain themselves. We understand, gradually, that while Marie can be charming and vivacious, she can also be difficult to live with and that she’s a terrible mother. And that Ahmad, while superficially the most sympathetic character (and the audience surrogate), just might be responsible for this whole domestic mess. We never learn Samir’s full story either, just as we never learn the full story of anyone we encounter in the real world. Parts of these characters remain mysterious, even to themselves.
The movies have trained us to read them in certain ways, but Farhadi seems determined to subvert even the most benign conventions. This is the rare movie that can not only withstand repeated viewings, but rewards them.