Director Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 ‘A Separation’ won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. It is the first Iranian film to win the award. It was a brilliant look into a modern family dealing with contemporary issues such as divorce and ailing parents. His films deal with universal themes not restricted to one culture. That’s precisely why audiences find his melodramatic stories so accessible. In his latest work ‘The Past,’ he continues his examination of dysfunctional families in a mesmerizing tale of deceit and betrayal. The story takes place in a house in suburban Paris. It’s in this fixer-upper that the characters intertwined stories unfold before us like a layered onion. It’s a brilliant and haunting family drama.
The opening of the film is well-crafted with sparse dialogue. At the airport, we see a man and woman greeting each other through a glass partition. Ahmad (Ali Mossaffa) returns to his former home in Paris after a few years absence and reunites with his wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo) to finalize their divorce. Instead of booking a hotel room for Ahmad, Marie asks him to stay and talk to her teenage daughter, the sullen Lucie (Pauline Burlet) even though he is not her father. To make matters more complicated, Ahmad finds out Marie is in a new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) and Marie’s other daughter Lea (Jeanne Jestin) all live in the same house together. Here’s the kicker, Samir’s wife is in a coma in the hospital. If this sounds like the making of a soap opera episode of ‘The Young and the Restless,’ it’s not. Farhadi is a master storyteller that throws in conflict in order to develop rich and meaningful characters.
Granted, at times the pacing is slow but Farhadi reveals so many secrets and plot twists; it keeps you involved in the main characters’ predicament. The most compelling aspect of the film is how Ahmad is thrust into the eye of the storm. It’s a thoughtful performance by Mossaffa. He becomes a pillar in Marie’s messed-up family life. The brilliance of Farhadi’s storytelling is how it shifts from different viewpoints. The first act looks at the conflict through Marie’s eyes, the second act shifts to Ahmad’s perspective and then the third act culminates from Samir’s point of view. To give the story even more texture, the kids contribute smart insights on how the adults’ actions have affected their lives. It dramatically shows how kids are innocent victims from divorce and the past too.
The intricacies of this story are fascinating. Continuing the plot overview would give away too many spoilers. It’s the twists and turns of the plot that make it feel like a mysterious thriller. Bejo is a revelation in the lead role. She plays a controlled train wreck. This is a far departure from her performance in ‘The Artist’ where she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her role in ‘The Past.’ It’s a mesmerizing performance. You can’t keep your eyes away from her. It shows off her acting range. The other standout performance goes to Pauline Burlet’s portrayal of angst-ridden teen, Lucie. Burlet is reminiscent of a young Marion Cotillard and actually plays the 10-year-old version of Cotillard in the Oscar-winning film ‘La Vie en Rose.’ Mark my words, Burlet is bound for stardom.
The film is loaded with motifs. The way it rains during certain scenes. The worn-out house used as the main set. Even the damaged relationships that result from past actions and decisions make this film resonate with authenticity. Farhadi shoots the film naturalistically and it gives you the sense that you’re eavesdropping on their tragic lives. Check out 'The Past' official trailer http://youtu.be/Z2-_lt4kwXE.