Sharply observing the troubles and dilemmas between its reserved characters we do not know entirely even in the end, Asghar Farhadi’s new film “The Past”, a quiet but compelling domestic melodrama, shows us how the present and future can be held back or influenced by the past. As its intriguing story revolving around a certain incident shrouded in a murky surrounding circumstance, the characters in the movie try to solve their problems associated that incident, but the truth becomes more elusive as more things are revealed to change the perspective on the incident, and they get more frustrated and confused with more questions and more uncertainties.
Like Farhadi’s previous film “A Separation”(2011) initially looked like a mundane case of separation between a husband and a wife, “The Past” opens the story with a simple case of divorce between an ex-husband and an ex-wife. Marie(Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmed(Ali Mosaffar) is arriving at the final stage of their divorce, and the opening scene at the airport shows us that there is no hard feeling between them as an ex-couple accepting their end of relationship. Every matter in their case has been settled in their mutual agreement, and all they have to do now is going to the court to be in front of their judge on the next day.
Right after arriving at the airport, Ahmed, who seems to return to France after several years in Iran, is picked up by Marie, and we get more information about them as listening to their conversation in Marie’s car. Because Ahmed has no place to stay at present due to Ahmed or Marie’s mistake(the movie is never clear about that), he comes to stay at her house for a while, and he meets his two stepdaughters(it is implied that he was Marie’s No.3 husband) and Fouad(Elyes Aguis), a young son of Marie’s current boyfriend Samir(Tahar Rahim).
Marie and Samir plan to marry after her divorce, but nothing is certain for them. We learn that Samir has a wife who has been in coma at the hospital, and, through the series of the conversations, we pick up the puzzle pieces one by one as getting an incomplete but fairly recognizable picture of what happened in their past. Probably because she had been suffering from depression, Samir’s wife suddenly attempted suicide on one day, and, considering that there has been no positive sign in her vegetative state, it may be better for her and her husband to turn off the life-supporting machine, but Samir is rather reluctant about that, though he likes to live with Marie as a husband and a wife.
Marie’s younger daughter Léa(Jeanne Jestin) does not mind about her mother’s another marriage while playing and getting along well with Fouad, but Marie’s elder teenage daughter Lucie(Pauline Burlet) does not seem to approve of her mother’s decision even though she does not hate Samir. Though Samir is a little too stern to his son and Léa at one point, he is mostly a good guy on the whole, and the movie has a moment of silent humor when he and Ahmed are left alone at the kitchen table while not knowing what to say to each other as an ex-husband and a future husband under the same roof.
After solidly establishing the characters and their circumstance on the ground, the terrific screenplay by the director Asghar Farhadi and Massoumeh Lahidji masterfully tantalizes our interest as it carefully rolling the plot while continuing to serve us with more information about them and that ambiguous situation surrounding the suicide of Samir’s wife. Reluctantly getting himself involved with his former family’s matter as a sort of neutral mediator, Ahmed tries to know and understand why Lucie has disapproved so much of her mother’s relationship with Samir, but, as he talks with her and others more, it is gradually turned out that the suicide incident in question was not as simple and clear as it looked at first, and things get more complicated step by step with more revelations to come.
Even while recognizing the maddening elusiveness at the center of its story, the movie deftly pulls the strings of our attention to the characters and their increasingly frustrating circumstance. Most of them do not tell everything about themselves and their lives, and it still looks like there are much more things to be talked even when the end credits roll, but Farhadi dexterously moves the story around them and their ambiguous aspects, and we come to identify with their confusion and frustration, which are always looming below the calm but unstable mood surrounding many of their conversation scenes.
The movie naturally depends on the performances of its cast, and, as he did from the cast of his Oscar-winning film “A Separation”, Farhadi brought out a fine, well-rounded ensemble performance from his actors. While Bérénice Bejo, who replaced Marion Cotillard due to scheduling conflict, received the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival in this year, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, and Pauline Burlet are as good as Bejo with their equally nuanced performances, and they make every step of the changing dynamic between them convincing and revealing. Two child actors Elyes Aguis and Jeanne Jestin are also wonderful as the parts of the ensemble; while they look natural as the kids at their age, they hold their own small places as the supporting characters of the story, and Farhadi did an excellent job of mixing their performances with adult performances especially during one scene where they are admonished for their small naughty deed.
Like his fellow Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami did with his recent works “Certified Copy”(2010) and “Like Someone in Love”(2012), Asghar Farhadi attempted to make a film in different language outside his country, and the result is one of the most engaging dramas of this year while confirming that his talented storytelling skill can be transcribed well to the other language. While the background details were specific in “A Separation”, the human matters unfolded on the screen were quite universal to us in that great film, and the same thing can be said “The Past”, too. As one character says in the movie, it is better to let the past put behind you when you want a possible new start, but, sometimes, it is pretty difficult to be through with the past even when it is already through with us.