The Past (France: Le passé), 2013.
Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi.
Starring Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Elyes Aguis and Pauline Burlet.
An Iranian man deserts his French wife and her two children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife’s request for a divorce.
After winning rave reviews (not to mention a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) for 2011’s A Separation, any follow-up of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s threatened to offer a comedown. And The Past – his first foray into French-language cinema – may be admirably performed by its cast and never less than intriguing, but it’s only really ever above-average drama. A three-star movie, where everyone agreed Farhadi’s last film was a solid five.
Returning to Paris to finalise his divorce from estranged wife Marie (Berenice Bejo), Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) also has to spend time among the two children of Marie’s he helped to raise, as well as Marie’s new live-in boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Naturally, tension arises, and the scenario can’t help but feel melodramatic. The child actors, especially Elyes Aguis as Samir’s young son from his failed marriage, are effective, moreso than the adults – Bejo, Mosaffa and Rahim are fine, but their characters are all rendered rather colourless.
Mosaffa in particular is lumbered with a fairly flat protagonist, and the lack of real passion fails to match the somewhat soapy storyline, the actors understated even as shocking twists and turns reveal themselves. Farhadi has, at least, made something that’s rarely boring: the writer-director drip-feeds information, raising the intrigue by allowing us to gradually figure out for ourselves what relationships and history these characters actually share with one another.
Our sympathies fluctuate, as each character reveals something newly ugly or admirable about themselves during the film’s progression. Rahim’s Samir can be surly and emotionally abusive, but we come to realise he’s a man shouldering extreme pressure, caught between a turbulent new relationship and an old one that likely won’t ever be rekindled. Bejo’s Marie is more complex still, given to loving kindness or eruptions of intense rage; it’s just a shame that Farhadi also often casts Marie as the villain, in a manner that comes across as ever so slightly misogynistic.
Shot in the autumn greens and browns of a David Fincher film, Farhadi’s movie is an aesthetic pleasure, even if, unfortunately, the overall tone is as subdued as that colour palette. The Past can be an interesting exploration of cause and effect in a domestic setting – much of the film is taken up by characters trying to appropriate blame for one shitty life turn or another, with the adults ordering their children to apologise for misdeeds without ever owning up to their own.
There are good standalone scenes: the relationship between Ahmad and Marie’s daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) produces some of the film’s more tender moments, while early on Samir’s son Fouad has to be physically restrained by Ahmad – a stranger in his home – during an outburst, the child so enraged at his lot in life that he kicks and punches wildly around his bedroom, lashing out at a world that inexplicably appears to be punishing him. Elyes Aguis is actually the standout performer of The Past – the rest of the film could just have used a bit more of his fire and spontaneity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.