Thickly knotted, sensitively written, and wrenchingly intimate, The Past is an understated study of two bonds in transition, a tale of lives torn asunder by forces within and without them, a riveting family drama with the death throes of a marriage cloaking deeper, fouler things. Set in an unglamorous, working-class Paris and churning with regret and complex emotions, it is steeped in believable detail while also expanding to universals.
An Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to finalize divorce procedures and encounters strained relations among his ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist), her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet), and her sullen teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet). The machinations fester and ravel in a plot-driven film that only barely lapses into soap opera. Bolstered by performances that convey profound grief and remorse without histrionics, as well as writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s artistry and resonant humanism, The Past transcends melodrama and cultural barriers.
Deft at ingenious narrative construction and intricate character development, Farhadi (A Separation) loosens the valve on a drip-feed of revelations, poking into corners of nondescript lives and discovering unique drama. His wounding worldview stirs many components – jealousy, resentment, betrayal, forgiveness, healing – into a dish that both stimulates and nourishes. It is a fine meal made with rare and subtle ingredients.
Farhadi comprehends and honours Marie, Samir, and Ahmad in their complexity and registers the consequences of their actions, particularly on children. He delves into psychological portraits of interpersonal conflict and burrows deep into his characters to tell an aching story, spinning grand tragedies out of minor lives in which the past lingers in the air like stale smoke.
Farhadi demonstrates how figures move, are framed by frames and reflected by surfaces, going beyond elementary considerations and describing a vital mathematics of humans in motion. Few directors today can shoot in tightly confined spaces, with such a resolute control over the actors’ movements. It’s a testament to Farhadi that I consider something as good as The Past, which proves his gift for finely layered cinema, to be any kind of disappointment.
The Past plays out within narrower bounds and at a lower velocity than A Separation, and it’s not as nuanced or as impacting as Farhadi’s first masterpiece. It has many of its strengths – the acute observation of complex characters in a narrative that keeps unpacking surprises – but they have become familiar, and lack revelatory wallop. A few moments feel almost Chekhovian.
Yet if The Past doesn’t equal its predecessor, it is commanding in its own right, and almost hypnotically compelling, spinning an intricate web of predicaments, reactions, and resolutions that leaves the viewer reeling by its conclusion. As another exploration of a volatile situation in which flashes of insight and understanding lead to new mysteries, Farhadi weaves a sticky web with ragged edges, an upscale soap opera without emotional payoff concerning fractured families, hidden motives, and the difficulties of attaining stability in a rapidly changing world. The last 30 seconds of the film – startling and utterly transformative – has haunted me for days.
Long, occasionally slow, but never false, The Past is a domestic drama with the tension of a thriller, and an indelible tapestry of carefully engineered revelations and deeper human truths. It is also a close-to-impeccable work that moves forward steadily without much dynamic modulation, and a compelling story wrapped in detailed, nerve-wracking mysteries that explores guilt, choice, and responsibility.
The past is never the past, but bleeds softly and ceaselessly into the present. Constant chatter and anguished outbursts can obscure the capacity for honest communication. The Past cherishes the silences.