Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi follows up his Academy Award-winning masterpiece, A Separation, with another highly proficient family drama, The Past, which competed at the Cannes Film Festival for the Palme d’Or. Being set in France, not Iran, this means that there aren’t as many cultural factors to further muddy the morals of the characters, but it deals with similar themes and is just as assured. These flawed relationships create a deeply resonating experience, featuring seemingly minor revelations that have maximum impact.
This is a simple story, the collision of two families through the meeting of Marie (Berenice Bejo, The Artist) and Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet). The former is unhappy with her estranged marriage to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who is visiting from Tehran to sign the divorce papers and ensure it ends on good terms. The latter runs a dry cleaning business of which Marie was a regular customer. Samir and his son Faoud (Elyes Aguis) are already living with Marie and her two daughters, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin). When Ahmad arrives Marie suggests he stay at the house and he reluctantly obliges. Stuck in a hotbed of stifling awkwardness Ahmad finds himself unwillingly immersed in their tumultuous lives; a passive observer and a rational listener whose guidance and advice is more welcomed than expected. Complex relationships fuel this deeply affecting drama which tackles mental illness, infidelity and youthful naivety wrapped up in a web of misinterpretation and painful truths.
We begin to see how fantastic Ahmad is with children, and there is a notable observation made evident well into the film that further accentuates just how important this trait is. He begins to lend a hand around the place; cooking dinner for the kids when Marie is at work and fixing a leaking tap in the kitchen. This isn’t in the face of Samir as a masculine show-up, but more the fact that he wants to spend time with the children before he moves on for good, and keep busy until the divorce is finalised. He finds himself obligated to stay to help Lucie accept the changes in her mother’s life and remain supportive as those around him come to terms with registered truths. All of the performances are strong, with the Cannes-winning Bejo and Mosaffa especially impressive. Farhadi has such confidence in his child performers, giving them every opportunity to shine having written them rich, conflicted characters.
Farhadi is also the master of the revelation; and often they emerge from the most insignificant of places. We learn snippets of information about the nature of Ahmad and Marie’s relationship, but also the terms on which Marie and Samir met and whether their secret courtship had anything to do with the reason Samir’s wife lays in a coma. Then there is Lucie, who is having a very difficult time accepting her mother’s marriage to Samir and is rarely at home. What is she hiding? It seems everyone is living with a secret and their need to come clean is both desired and pushed upon them when the consequences are made clear.
With extraordinary and compelling complexity Farhadi dissects the whirlwind of emotional baggage surrounding divorce and proposed re-marriage, and how every member of the family is affected individually. In addition to being damn near perfect in technical execution, The Past also tackles the lingering effects of the past when wrestling with the possibility of the future. How Farhadi subtly reveals secrets and how they snowball is a writing feat comparable to A Separation, which is about the highest praise I can give. An engrossing drama that shouldn’t be missed.
[rating=4] and half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.