"The Past" is a film not to be missed — deeply human, sad and beautiful, wonderfully performed and unflaggingly engaging.
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar for the 2012 Best Foreign Language film, "A Separation." Set in Tehran, he has once again captured the power of a domestic situation that gradually unravels. Each set piece is a revelation of domestic truth, each compounding what proves to be a Gordian knot that feels like it simply cannot be cleaved.
The setting is Paris, and Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) has returned from Iran at his wife, Marie's (Berenice Bejo), request so they can finalize their prolonged separation. She has met someone else, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who is now living with her as well as his pre-teen son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Marie has two daughters by a previous husband, not Ahmed.
French and Farsi with subtitles
When Marie tells Ahmed he can stay with her, to include Samir and Fouad and the girls, he does not realize that he stepping into a situation framed by profound dysfunction. In fact, it is clear that he has not stopped loving Marie, despite the years that have passed. But much has changed. As they await a court meeting to sign the final divorce papers, Marie discloses to Ahmed that she is pregnant with Samir's child. He also learns, in moments of heartfelt grief and chaos, that Marie's teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), also resents and resists the idea of Marie marrying Samir. She absents herself as much as possible from the house, and in true adolescent rebellion, makes her oppositional feelings know to her mother in countless ways.
The film can be touching and haunting as it grows ever more complex and evolves into a kind of forensic mystery. What Ahmed learns is that Samir has a wife who has been in a coma for months after an attempted suicide. Although she is absent from the film, she plays a key role not only in Samir's life, but in Lucie's as well. The why and the how is something that Ahmed tenaciously struggles to understand as he sorts out the relationships of this family that has secrets embedded at every turn.
What director/writer Farhadi does so well is subtly and delicately focus on how very difficult connections can be between people who are part of that web called family. Especially when the construct is one created as a result of being blended. "The Past" is one reveal after the next, and just when it seems there simply cannot be one more twist or turn or surprise, well, there is.
The past has not been completely resolved, there is little clarity and much regret, hence so much of what occurs is viewed through a prism of backstory and personal baggage. Ahmed and Marie have history.
Farhadi finds humanity in countless places; he is a student of the domestic drama, yet he avoids, through fine writing and a reliance on well-crafted dialogue, any sense of superficiality. "The Past" is, put simply, a fine film from a master storyteller.
A tangential point: The film is beautifully acted with Berenice Bejo (from "The Artist") giving a powerful and complicated and nuanced performance. Marie is a conflicted woman who is ruled by the emotions of uncertainty and anger. But then all of the performances are spot-on, to include that of the children, Pauline Burlet and Elyes Aguis. All in this fine ensemble give "The Past" great depth and breadth.