As he demonstrated in his Oscar-winning “A Separation,” Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a passion for drama and a gift for the realistic depiction of intense emotional situations, a talent he takes full advantage of in his new film, “The Past.”
Because it is set in France, not Iran, “The Past” does not have the religious/political overlay that made “A Separation” so remarkable that it won the best foreign language Oscar and more than 70 international awards. But it’s quite potent on its own terms.
The story of an Iranian man whose return to France to give his wife the divorce she wants has devastating consequences, “The Past” is part family melodrama, part intricate interpersonal puzzle in which the surer people are that they know the truth, the more likely it is that they are mistaken. In fact, “The Past” is so rife with half-truths, evasions, suspicions, assumptions, accusations and misunderstandings that it could have been called “Secrets & Lies” if director Mike Leigh hadn’t already used the title.
“The Past” also demonstrates that a plot that is heavy with contrivances and coincidences can be quite effective if it has a forceful director and the excellent cast that has joined forces here. Top-lining the performers is Bérénice Bejo, looking considerably more fragile and delicate than she did as the ebullient Peppy in “The Artist” but so convincing as Marie, a woman trying to maintain an equilibrium in her life, that she took the actress prize at Cannes for the portrayal.
It has been four years since Marie has seen her husband Ahmad (Iranian Ali Mosaffa, acting in French) and filmmaker Farhadi sets up their first scene together beautifully. It is an airport arrivals hall in Paris, and though these two can see each other through the glass, they can’t hear each other speak. The scene is a wonderful metaphor for the close yet distant current state of their relationship.
Though Ahmad has arrived at Marie’s request, that doesn’t mean the two are fated to get along. It’s almost as if they pick up the threads of the arguments that must have split them years before, pushing each other’s buttons the way only intimate strangers can do.
Ahmad turns out to have been Marie’s second husband. She has two daughters by her first, and Ahmad clearly was an essential father figure to both of them, especially Lucie, the oldest, while he and Marie were together. Now, Marie tells him, she and 16-year-old Lucie (the luminous young Belgian actress Pauline Burlet) are at each other’s throats. Can Ahmad talk to her and see what the trouble is?
Ahmad readily agrees, but it is one of the conceits of “The Past” that though he is in general a rational figure and a calming influence, his presence becomes an unwitting catalyst that causes all hell to break loose.
One of the things Marie doesn’t tell Ahmad, at least at first, is that the reason she wants a divorce now is that she is in a serious relationship with Samir (“A Prophet’s” Tahar Rahim). He’s a man who has serious personal crises of his own to deal with, difficulties that give him the air of someone on the verge of being underwater in his own life.
As the secrets that almost everyone is hiding slowly but inexorably come to light, Farhadi’s gifts as a very specific director, someone who knows exactly how he wants every scene to be played, come to the fore, adding honesty and involvement to a plot that might seem artificial in other hands.
Though there is no lack of incidents to involve us here, “The Past” also deals with larger questions like the difficulties inherent in finding the truth in a given situation. The human tendency to see and believe what we want to see and believe makes it increasingly likely that in complex situations, even with the best intentions in the world, we will get it wrong.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles