Asghar Farhadi won last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar for his terrific A Separation. It was quite deserving – a fascinating and grueling examination of a separating couple who couldn’t see the difference between their best intentions and their best self-serving intentions. And I’ll be damned if Farhadi hasn’t made another film just as artistically solid, based on that same lesson, under markedly different narrative circumstances. He’s very good.
The Past (Le Passé) (France / Italy, 2013) is a film with French dialogue, made by an Iranian, in France, predominantly financed and supported by French and Italian producers. And yet it’s Iran’s official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar - and there you have the present-day vagaries and maneuvering of global / international film production. Iran won’t give primary support to their homegrown filmmakers when shooting abroad, but they’re happy to take the credit anyway when those films turn out to be good. (I suspect Abbas Kiarostami has some intriguing stories to tell on that account as well.)
France, like the U.S., is a pretty interesting melting pot of cultures, and Farhadi exploits this in introducing us to Marianne (Bérénice Bejo, very quickly becoming recognized as a world-class actress) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa – equally good here). Marianne has asked Ahmad to fly in from Tehran, where he’s been living for the last four years, to finalize their divorce, and enable her to marry her current partner, Samir (Tahar Rahim, the excellent French-Algerian actor delivering his usual measured but splendidly effective work). But Marianne has omitted some valuable information concerning her present living situation, leaving the even-tempered Ahmad at an awkward disadvantage; Marianne didn’t book a hotel room for him, even though he expressly asked for that; she, rather, arranged for him to stay at the house, formerly their house, along with Samir and Samir’s young son. Marianne has two children from her failed first marriage as well, for whom Ahmad was a stepfather (the marriage to Samir will be her third); the younger daughter Léa (Jeanne Jestin) is grade-school aged, and seems remarkably adaptable to her mother’s ever-shifting circumstances. The older daughter, though, Lucie (the excellent Pauline Burlet – hell, everyone here is disarmingly good), has real misgivings about Mom’s capacity for choosing good husbands; despite her affection for Ahmad, she assumes that Marianne is incapable of keeping a good partner for more than a few years, and is ardently opposed to her marriage to Samir. Overall, there’s the sniff of opportunism on Marianne’s part – she wants Ahmad to reach out to Lucie about her daughter’s rebelliousness concerning her relationship with Samir, and Ahmad finds himself doing surrogate co-fatherhood duty with Samir’s young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis) as well. And yet, when Ahmad calls her on these machinations, she insists that he’s only here for the divorce, and that the rest of it really isn’t any of his business.
Ahmad is a pretty likable guy, and we predominantly follow him through the film’s proceedings as he, and we, discover he’s surrounded by some pretty unreliable narrators. Ahmad always got along well with Lucie; is Marianne exploiting this selfishly, or is she at a genuine loss concerning the daughter she loves? Marianne seems to be shoving the fact that she’s moving on with her life in Ahmad’s face, but there are a lot of practical reasons for displaying this to a guy whom she might rightfully feel abandoned her when things got tough for him. The last big piece of information concerns the circumstances under which Samir is remarrying; his first wife is in a nonresponsive coma, and has been for the last eight months. Samir, like Marianne, is determined to productively move on with his life for his, and his child’s, sake, but he must balance his love and loyalty for the wife that has ‘left’ him with those same feelings towards the woman he wants to move forward with.
I don’t mean to make the film sound like a malicious snarl of harsh choices, manipulation or passive-aggressiveness; the amazing thing about these characters is how identifiable they are, and how each, in their own flawed way, is fully deserving of our empathy. The narrative has lots of moving parts, but it’s efficiently structured by Farhadi, and he gives his actors plenty of room to create their own fully-flushed-out characters. A few other critics have compared Farhadi to Chekhov and Ibsen, and while I think that’s an unfair comparison to burden Farhadi with, he is undeniably adept at creating enormous amounts of relatable humanity underneath some fairly straightforward situational domestic drama. He also collaborates superbly with the veteran Iranian cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, who keeps things visually fluid under a lot of potentially claustrophobic and chaotic circumstances.
The Past is an involving examination of family dynamics that aspires to complexity rather than resolution, honest human experience rather than narrative expediency, and shows us that our best intentions are sometimes hurled back into our own faces when they seek to serve ourselves rather than the culture, or the family, that is much larger, and can be affected more profoundly, than the part that we ourselves represent.
The Past, as mentioned, is Iran’s official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, and is an excellent bet to end up in the final five nominated films. The performances alone warrant its inclusion in this league (Bérénice Bejo, in particular, is superb, and almost unrecognizable in comparison to her turn as Peppy Miller in 2011’s The Artist), and I suspect it’d be the favorite if Farhadi hadn't won this last year. Watching a livid Julia Roberts screaming “F*** you! Eat your f***ing fish!” in August: Osage County may provide more red-meat fireworks this weekend, but, I assure you, this film is far more satisfying overall. It’s an excellent film, and I highly recommend it.