by M. Faust
There aren’t many Oscars I’ve been happier to see given out than the one that went to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.
The Past is Farhadi’s new film, and like many Iranian filmmakers he has moved his base of production to France, presumably for a combination of better financing and unlimited creative control. (There’s an argument to be made that the limitations of censorship spark unexpected avenues of expression in many creative artists, but we can discuss that some other time.)
The story begins with a couple in the process of divorce, and we can’t help but recall A Separation, which opened with a couple pleading their case in front of a judge. But the setting here is a suburb of Paris, and the difficulties facing then are of their own making. Four years after leaving his wife to return to Iran, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come back at her request. Marie (Bérénice Bejo, “Peppy Miller” in The Artist) wants him to finalize the divorce, and touch base with her two daughters.
Farhadi parcels out information slowly, and it takes us a little while to understand that the girls are not Ahmad’s—they are Marie’s from a previous marriage. And Marie parcels information to Ahmad even more slowly. What he doesn’t learn until he gets to her house, where he will stay because she didn’t book him a hotel room like she promised, is that she is living with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), whom she wants to marry. She wants Ahmad to have a civilized farewell with her daughters, who always liked him; but she also wants him to find out why the older girl, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is so resistant to Samir.
It may seem that I’ve given away a lot of the plot, but the above is only the first 20 minutes or so of the movie. It continues in this way for the entire length of two-plus hours, slowly peeling away at the layers these people are keeping hidden, from themselves as well as their partners.
The Past lacks two characteristics that made A Separation so compelling. Set in Paris, it offers us comparatively little of the insight into a foreign culture that fueled Farhadi’s Oscar winner. And it is structurally plainer, without the detours into seemingly unrelated story tangents that kept us intrigued.
If this makes The Past sound somewhat duller, for much of its length it is. But Farhadi is counting on us to be patient, to stick with these people as their inner workings are revealed at an appropriate pace. Stick with it and you are likely to find yourself unexpectedly moved by the ending, though you may also find yourself arguing with your companions over it: I wouldn’t give it away, but let me warn you that in the last minute of the film you will want to pay very close attention to the screen so as to be sure what you do and do not see.
Watch the trailer for The Past
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