Published Sep 01, 2013As was the case with his Oscar-winning domestic drama, A Separation, Asghar Farhadi's The Past preoccupies itself with divorce and familial discord, unfolding as an astutely realized dialogue piece with the revelation of secrets and subsequent moral ambiguity making a minor mystery out of it all. The setting has changed — Farhadi has thrust an Iranian protagonist into a French landscape — but the traditionalist social critique has not, reiterating the director's auteur trajectory of reactionary thinking as a political and artistic message.
This time, the story starts with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning to France after several years, having abandoned wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her two daughters, Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), for the familiarity of the Iranian social climate. Farhadi, setting up his template of exploring reactions before providing their reasons, doesn't reveal his purpose or their relationship for some time, gradually letting it slip that Marie is desperate for a divorce now that she has Samir (Tahar Rahim), a married man whose wife is in a coma, in her life.
Why his wife is in a coma and why Marie is so eager for a divorce are left on the periphery initially, just as Lucie's overt hostility and the irreverent aggression of Samir's son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), remain a mystery, propelling the human drama while hinting at the promise of something bigger from the titular past looming beneath the surface.
In this capacity, The Past doesn't disappoint, having an endless series of revelations that ultimately lead to bigger questions and additional digging. Our entry point comes from the perspective of Ahmad — the outsider — as he tries to fit together the many pieces keeping this fragmented, makeshift family at odds.
At first, this structure has some appeal, being formulaic in its cyclic nature, but rewarding the audience with added tidbits of information every time a squabble is resolved by the divulgence of a secret. However, seeing as the film runs for over two hours and, like A Separation, has little action or music to break up the endless talking, the repetition becomes tedious, taking itself far too seriously to have the intended effect.
Essentially, as the many pieces start to fit together and the relationship foundations between Marie and Samir are discussed openly, everything starts to feel very much like the sort of melodrama Almodovar is known for, only without the sense of humour or flashy aesthetic appeal. Played straight, the intensity of the acting is clear, as are the political implications — Farhadi firmly believes that people should remain married, even if it makes them and everyone around them miserable — but there's a void where integrity should be.
The story, while not ludicrous unto itself, unfolds as such, milking emotional reactions from the perpetually crying and screaming cast without any breaks for levity. That everyone would conveniently spill their guts about their guilt and inner moral conflicts so specifically, sharing a bit of information and then waiting for a blow out before revealing another perspective changing point, isn't likely. Since Farhadi plays it all so straight, not allowing the sense of reality to shift enough for the audience to suspend belief or indulge in the versatility of the medium, it eventually becomes ludicrous and frustrating.
Still, as an intricately designed tale that allows its characters to reveal motivations through emotional range and reaction, The Past is exceptional, observing the details — what people wear, how they stand and what they're allergic to — with a keen, consistent eye. In particular, the handling of child actors in relation to their damaged, emotionally unavailable parental figures has an eerie realness that's particularly evident during scenes bordering on abuse.
In trying to depart from the subtlety of A Separation, making a slightly more sensationalized and universal story, Farhadi has sacrificed his strengths, sticking with the style he knows despite diving into a genre that requires more flexibility with the concept of reality versus storytelling.
While flawed, The Past is an interesting and occasionally compelling misstep that foreshadows greater things to come from a very talented, albeit terrifyingly solipsistic filmmaker. (Mongrel Media)