Asghar Farhadi is proving himself to be a mesmerizing and expert storyteller. After 2011's Oscar-winning A Separation, he's now crafted the masterful The Past, a story of family drama and hidden secrets that come to light, bringing forth new revelations and mysteries among a troubled set of individuals. Much like A Separation, when key parts of the story are revealed, it only sets in motion events that continue to play out in unexpected ways, keeping the viewer guessing until the very end as to what may ultimately occur.
Farhadi is an excellent screenwriter, skilled at putting in place the atmosphere and set-up for a convincing personal drama, only to draw you into a complicated web of intimate relationships and feelings that make you feel a part of the action in surprising ways. The Past deals with the story of a woman (The Artist's Berenice Bejo) who has children from a past marriage, is living with her new boyfriend and his son, and is receiving a visit from her most recent ex-husband (Ali Mosaffa), who moves in with the makeshift family while in town to finalize divorce proceedings from Bejo. Already, you can see that this is highly melodramatic material- but unlike Pedro Almodovar, a contemporary of Farhadi's whose specialty is melodrama and high camp, Farhadi takes this subject matter and plays it deadly serious. We get to know each and every one of his characters, from the woman and her lovers, to their children and friends, and we experience up close their fears, hopes, pain and sorrow.
Bejo's teenage daughter is the first family member to be exposed as hiding a mysterious secret, and her anger at her mother's newest marriage manifests itself in crying fits and disappearances, which Bejo drags both her fiance and ex-husband into. But it all unfolds with precision and workmanlike efficiency. We begin to see where Farhadi's taking us as we meet each new character along our established character's journeys, and eventually it all makes sense as it heads toward a conclusion that in retrospect seems inevitable. The films this director is making are personal stories about the mysteries of human nature, and contemporary ones about the way people live today in Iran, France, and wherever else his next film might be set. The actors are held on guard by their director, never let off the hook to reveal too much in their performances, never more emotion than what's absolutely necessary at any particular moment. This is a man running a tight ship, in total control of his actors and screenplay, for the ultimate benefit of his viewing audience.
The Past may not be in the same league as A Separation, because in that film the stakes felt much higher, and the character's destinies ultimately seemed not to be in their own hands. Here we are dealing with affairs and backstabbing, and the film all rests on the personal choices of its protagonists. It's harder to escape the sense of melodrama, but it's dealt with in a high class, highly efficient, even suspenseful manner. It's no easy task to mine suspense out of intimate family drama, but Asghar Farhadi is a major talent, whose natural storytelling sensibilities make it look easy. I can't wait to see what he does next.