The Past (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Artificial Eye) Running time: 130 minutes approx.
Four years after deserting his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her two daughters Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin) from a previous marriage, Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France to finalise the divorce. Arriving back at their former home, Ahmad learns that Marie is living with her new man Samir (Tahar Rahim) an Arab, and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). While Ahmad tries to adjust to Marie’s moving on, he finds himself walking into a fraught situation, revolving around Lucie’s truculent behaviour and the suicide attempt by Samir’s wife which has left her in a coma.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi follows up his Oscar winning opus A Separation with another tale of a strained relationship, this time venturing outside his native borders to suburban France. This change of location might bring with it some typically western melodrama conventions to this distinctly taut and complex affair but it is still told with Farhadi’s trademark sensitivity.
While Farhadi’s films have thus far given us a unique insight into Iranian society and culture, the burdens of strict authoritarian laws and religious instructions, which cast a looming shadow over his tales, no longer apply here. This forces Farhadi to look elsewhere for his external intrusive influences, due to which The Past neatly relies on internal causes for these imploding relationships.
The film starts off with a nice bait and switch, leading us to believe that Ahmad is the villain of the piece. In fact it is not long until we see Marie display signs of the “big bad stepmother” towards Fouad who, despite calling her “Mommy”, is openly disobedient and calls for his father so he can go home. Ahmad sees Marie’s angry and rough reactions to this behaviour, which he doesn’t recognise in the Marie he knew, putting him in the nominal role of peacemaker, with some success.
Marie is a powder keg with the fuse slowly burning throughout in response to everyone’s behaviour, something which the quick divorce hearing fails to placate. While Ahmad is trying to get Lucie to open up about her typically indolent teen mood swings, Marie has to contend with Samir’s sulking about Ahmad being around, seeing him as a threat to their relationship. The problems escalate to breaking point when the cause of his wife’s suicide attempt works its way to the forefront of the troubles.
It is no doubt that these developments are the cause of the many accusations that being a French co-production has resulted in a run-of-the-mill domestic melodrama and while there is a slight Western influence this is still resolutely a Farhadi film, the transition to working within this new environment is a lot smoother and less detrimental that the naysayers may have you believe.
Farhadi makes this issues seem utterly plausible, as convoluted as they are, and teases a resolve for a good portion of the third act, suggesting the 130 minute run time needs a slight trim. Since all the characters are painted in shades of grey, the sympathy vote switches over time, quite an achievement when you think about it. Possibly the only person who is relatively infallible is Marie’s youngest daughter Léa, who just wants her family to stay together, whatever the iteration may be.
Most bases are covered in explaining the various developments and conflicts that arise but a couple are left unexplained – such as why Ahmad and Marie split in the first place and why he went back to Iran; or how they met and why they lived in France and not Iran (unusual for someone from a patriarchal society). The former example is arguably the more important of the two issues to have been addressed, to give us a better understanding of the dynamic we are currently witnessing coming to is absolute end.
Where Farhadi excels is in exploring the snowballing effects of one’s decisions or reactions on everyone in close proximity to the principles. As per the title the damage has already been done before we join the story and we are witnessing the fallout which is pretty seismic. The problem of not communicating and opening up to one another is a central cause for much of the continuing destruction to this already discordant gathering, and again this is acutely essayed, possibly engendering thoughts of personal recognition in the audience.
With such a rich and demanding story the performances need to be up to relaying everything Farhadi wants to say, and as ever he has enlisted a strong cast to being his vision alive. Absolutely deserving top credit is Bérénice Bejo, who has a lot to prove coming off The Artist, to persuade cynics that she is more than the kooky Peppy Miller she is internationally known for. At the risk of hyperbolising, Bejo more than rises to the challenge, delivering a stunning powerhouse performance, taking her character through numerous emotional peaks and troughs with conviction and natural sensitivity.
The only other familiar face for many will be Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) who is good at sulking but sadly that is what he mostly does here, making him the most distant of the main characters. Somewhat contrary to the Iranian male being portrayed as a bully, Ali Mosaffa presents Ahmad as a kind and thoughtful man, providing some much needed warmth for both the film and the kids, who it has to be said are superb, utterly natural and unbridled in their genuine childlike reactions and behaviour. Pauline Burlet as Lucie is also one to look out for.
Coming off such a highly regarded film as A Separation means many will instantly compare The Past to its predecessor. The best advice, simply, is don’t. It may seem like a translocation of the same story to a new setting but this is so much more and deserves to be judged on its own merits, which are plentiful. Stark, tragic, touching and ultimately human this is another deeply rewarding outing from the Iranian master.
2.0 Stereo LCPM
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
Rating – ****
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