Asghar Farhadi’s new film The Past doesn’t have the immediate impact of his Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), and it certainly hasn’t quite the same level of awards cache, but the further away I get from it, the more I think The Past might well be the better film. For me at least, it lingers more in the mind than A Separation. Despite being the Iranian filmmaker’s first film made in the West (France), it’s very much in the same mold as its predecessor — but without the specific political and sociological concerns. For that matter, several of its characters — including two of the principals — are Iranian. But the connections are much deeper than that. Once again, Farhadi is working in the realm of the domestic drama (face it, these movies are not that far removed from soap operas), and once again, Farhadi takes a very plot-driven approach.
He also turns this story into a mystery — much more effectively than he did with A Separation — though it takes a while before that becomes completely apparent. Once it does, however, the film’s narrative becomes a series of startling but always believable shifts. What we think we know constantly turns into something else. In lesser hands, this might have been no more than a gimmick, but Farhadi is too shrewd to fall into that trap. Yes, he clearly enjoys continually pulling the rug out from under us, and he knows this structure creates a tension that makes the story compelling (nothing wrong with that). But Farhadi is on record as being more interested in raising questions than in providing simplistic answers, and that’s what’s ultimately going on here. Even the film’s conclusion — something that could have been a standard art-house lemon of an ending — creates its own (almost unbearable) tension. This stands even if Farhadi does what you think he will do. (Yes, you’ll have to see the movie to know exactly what I’m talking about.)
The plot is built on Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning from Tehran to Paris to sign the divorce papers for his soon-to-be ex-wife Marie Brisson (Bérénice Bejo, proving that there’s much more to her than The Artist suggested). No sooner do the two meet than they settle into squabbling like the old married couple they are, but there’s more to it than that. True, Ahmad has come to Paris when he could have handled this through a lawyer, but what he doesn’t know is that Marie has an ulterior motive in getting him there. She wants to remarry, and she wants Ahmad to talk to her (not Ahmad’s) older daughter Lucie (the astonishing Pauline Burlet, La Vie en Rose) to bring her around on the topic. Neither the announcement of this new marriage, nor the idea of talking to Lucie appeals to him. For that matter, he’s not happy about staying at Marie’s house with her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet) for the duration.
This uncomfortable situation, however, is but the proverbial iceberg tip. Marie has left out certain key details — like the fact that she’s pregnant and that Samir’s wife Celine (Alexandra Klebanska) is in a coma following a suicide bid. Again, these points are only part of the story — the part of it that Marie knows. There is much more than this, but the film cautiously and methodically doles these details out — not just because it makes for good drama, but because the other characters are harboring secrets that they haven’t shared. These secrets make up the latter part of the film, ultimately providing the probable solution to what really happened, but deliberately withholding the deeper emotions behind it all. Oh, there are hints and possibilities, but Farhadi leaves those aspects of the film for us to ponder — or perhaps be haunted by. It’s a brilliant move, only slightly marred by the fact that once the revelations start, Ahmad is effectively sidelined for so long that it’s a shock when he resurfaces at the end. A small quibble, but it’s there all the same. Even so, this is a must-see. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language.
Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.