Emotional French drama explores the secrets and lies of one very troubled family
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim
The titular time period looms large and heavy in Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s microcosmic family drama The Past. It manifests itself right off the bat when Ahmad (the hangdog handsome Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to finalize his divorce from Marie (the simply lovely Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) and to reconnect (however briefly) with his two daughters, Léa and Lucie. Marie picks him up at the airport, and their banter is breezy, familiar. She has a sprained wrist, and he helps her shift gears. Clearly they mesh. But it’s barely a minute before they begin to needle one another in tiny ways. Their shared history, it seems, is a complex and contentious one.
Returning to the couple’s once-happy home in the suburbs of Paris, Ahmad starts to see subtle differences that have taken place since he bugged out four years ago. Shelves are moved; walls have been painted. Time has marched on in his absence. The most glaring difference though is that a new man has moved in. Marie is now dating—and possibly on the verge of marrying—Samir (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet). Samir has added his own young son, Fouad, to the mix. Fouad (Elyes Aguis) hates this mixed family situation, acting out against his new “mother” and demanding to return to his real home. Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) rebels in her own way, refusing to bless the impending union and staying out till all hours. It’s in this confusing family dynamic that Ahmad now finds himself. He’s stuck camping out in Fouad’s room, at least until the divorce paperwork is signed.
The Past is an incredibly subtle movie. Everything is played in low-key, soft voice. Very little is explicit. Mostly because none of these people wants to talk about anything that’s happening. Or has happened. The assumption, initially anyway, is that Ahmad and Marie broke up for legitimate reasons, and everyone has now moved on with their lives. It happens. But as the close-quarters living conditions continue, other layers to the relationships emerge. Ahmad abandoned his family to return to his homeland: That much is clear. But what precipitated the move? Eventually we learn that he isn’t even the father to Léa and Lucie—just the last in a long line of stepfathers. And yet he seems the most attentive and solicitous person here. He just wants to fix things. But some things can’t be fixed. Samir, as it turns out, is already married—to a woman in a coma. Lucie’s reasons for lashing out at Samir and her mother slowly emerge. Marie struggles to figure out who and what she wants. And always there is that unspoken titular epoch. It’s an anchor, made heavy by all the bad things that happened, that weighs down Ahmad and Marie. It’s a shadowy place in which family secrets can hide and fester. But it also contains all the things our characters have in common: the life they shared, the kids they raised, the house they made together.
There have been a number of recent films exploring the lives of French Muslims, but writer-director Farhadi (Fireworks Wednesday, the Oscar-winning A Separation) is less interested in cultural and religious politics and more concerned with the interpersonal kind. Regret, guilt, anger, grief, a profound lack of closure: These are just a few of the emotions The Past explores in gut-wrenching detail. Morally speaking none of the characters here is in the wrong. Or perhaps all of them are. Nearly the entire movie takes place within the confines of Marie’s chaotic, in-the-process-of-being-renovated house. This tight, metaphor-heavy setting further concentrates the drama, allowing just enough slow-building pressure to justify the film’s quiet, emotionally powerful ending.
Do we hold on to the past? Do we learn from it? Or do we just let it go? Complex and realistic as it is, The Past can’t give us the answers. It can only ask a lot of tough questions. This steadily mounting melodrama may not have the landmark punch that A Separation did three years ago. But thanks to its complex script, pitch-perfect cast and tension-ratcheting direction, you can easily count The Past among the most haunting dramas of the year.