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Review: ‘The Past’ examines the human condition and the decisions we make

The Past

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In 2011, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi explored the universal themes of marriage, divorce, family, motive, and truth in the Oscar-winning foreign film, A Separation (Iran’s first ever Academy Award winner). A little over two years later, Farhadi returns to these same themes for his new film, The Past, another exemplary exploration of the human condition.

French/Iranian film 'The Past' opens in NOLA this weekend
Sony Pictures Classics

An Iranian man left his French wife and two step-children to return to his homeland. In his absence, his wife starts a new relationship with a grieving man whose wife is in coma, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife's request for a divorce.

The story is revealed in two distinct parts. The first half of the film scrutinizes the failed relationship between Ahmad and Marie. They are still married, but have been separated for two years. She lives in Paris, he has returned home to Iran. Though not his biological children, Marie’s two daughters look upon him in this capacity. Marie has asked him to return to Paris to settle their divorce, provide a bit of closure, and to help alleviate the growing tension between her and her eldest daughter, Lucie.

The audience catches glimpses of the problems that likely caused their split. Ahmad is domineering and slightly condescending towards her. His decision to return home to Iran is unclear, but one gets the sense he is more comfortable in the traditional values of the Middle East, rather than Paris.

The second part of the film focuses on Marie’s new relationship with Samir – which is her reasoning behind finalizing the divorce and the main source of contention with Lucie. Samir is a wounded man grieving his comatose wife – who attempted suicide, supposedly because of his affair with Marie. With a mixture of defiance and guilt, he struggles with his romantic decisions and the effect they have on his young son.

The film’s late-in-the-game shift is a little perplexing at first. The first part is a quiet, meditative character study based in conversations, which the second half is too, but it adds a bit of tension-filled mystery as well. It is certainly an organic change within the story, but still rather abrupt and noticeable. It is easy for audience to become deeply invested in both parts – ultimately, it just comes across like two different types of films. It works here, but not seamlessly.

Clearly, given the title, both acts force the characters to confront their past, the decisions they made, and how it is affecting their families now. The film is a tangled web of complex human emotion, yet portrayed in a wonderfully accessible and universal way.

What stands out most are the performances. The three leads – Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), and in particular Marie (Bérénice Bejo of The Artist) and Samir (Tahar Rahim from the phenomenal A Prophet) – are all fantastic. The young actors, especially young Eyles Aguis as Samir’s five-year old son, Fouad, are astonishingly mature and intense.

Though filled with some rich symbolism, Farhadi’s direction is rightfully understated. He often lingers on a single moment (including a terrific final shot) or keeps an entire scene dialogue free, allowing the actors or his screenplay to do all the heavy lifting. Together, Farhadi and his actors create a film populated with characters the audience cannot help but forge an emotional connection with and end up caring about throughout the film (even if not at first).

The Past was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, but did not make the cut for this year’s Academy Awards. The film did win the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

* * * * out of 5 stars

The Past opens Friday, February 21 in New Orleans at The Theatres at Canal Place with several showtimes daily – 12:00, 3:30, 7:15, and 10:20 p.m.

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