Arts Review, Movies

The Past

The Past featured image

Asghar Farhadi, director and script

Starring: Berenice Bejo (Marie Brisson), Tahar Rahim (Samir), Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad), Pauline Burlet (Lucie), Elyes Aguis (Fouad), Jeanne Jestin (Lea), Babak Karimi (Shahryar)

The hype

This thoughtful and moving melodrama was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the best foreign film at the Golden Globes and represented Iran for a place in the Oscars. Though none of that resulted in prizes, The Past did win two awards at Cannes: the Ecumenical Prize and Best Actress for Berenice Bejo. It also won prizes at Palm Springs, Durban and from the National Board of Review.

Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, was hailed as a masterpiece. It won the Oscar and the Golden Globe for best foreign film as well as the Berlin Film Festival’s biggest prize, the Golden Bear.

The Past follows A Separation in examining why a couple falls apart; while distinctly different, the film is clearly made by the same creative artist.

As if that wouldn’t be enough to excite critics and discerning audiences worldwide, The Past stars Berenice Bejo, who achieved international recognition for her role as Peppy in the Oscar winning The Artist and Tahar Rahim who won acclaim for his lead role in A Prophet, which garnered nine Caesars (the French Academy Award) including one for him as Best Actor.

The premise

Ahmad, a quiet but capable Iranian, returns to France to participate in his divorce from Marie. To his surprise, she has arranged for him to stay at their old apartment, where his stepdaughters Lea and Lucie greet him with affection. (Marie had been married once before she met Ahmad).

He finds Marie to be quite difficult to understand: she has a new lover, Samir, but still seems very interested in him. Marie wants Ahmad to talk to Lucie, now a teenager, who always related to him. Lucie clearly dislikes Samir and Marie wants Ahmad to figure out her reasons.

Samir’s son Fouad, a young boy who has become quite attached to Lea, fights Ahmad’s presence at first but quickly grows to like him. The youngster has far more difficult problems. His mother has tried to commit suicide but has ended up comatose in a hospital.

While Marie can’t marry Samir, she reveals to Ahmad—just before they become divorced—that she is pregnant by him.

What is Ahmad to do? Or any of them?

Asghar Farhadi: creative artist

As A Separation demonstrated, Farhadi is a terrific director of actors and a subtle organiser of narrative scenes. The Past is full of terrific moments: Ahmad serving a home-made Iranian dinner to the kids; Lucie and Ahmad’s wonderfully caring relationship; Marie’s strength, demonstrated in key scenes between her and Samir once and Ahmad in several encounters.

Farhadi uses the classic Iranian narrative device of slowly revealing the overall story, gradually adding to the complexity of the characters and their relationships to each other. It’s rather like peeling off the skin of an orange: you slowly discover the essence while enjoying the taste of the fruit.

In The Past, the audience finds out more and more as the film progresses. There’s certainly a resolution but Farhadi doesn’t offer a full stop conclusion. There are always more things to reveal.

The skinny

The Past had much to recommend it: compelling performances, a skillful narrative and a fine attention to locale. What made A Separation better was its setting in Iran. Few of us in the West understand Iranian law and much of the intrigue in the film revolved around things that were new to us. In contrast, The Past is set in France—admittedly an immigrant’s France—but it’s still a terrain that is not so exotic to us. The result is a very well made melodrama but not quite the masterpiece that A Separation appeared to be.

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