Film Review: The Past

Expectations could hardly have been higher for Asghar Farhadi’s first feature since the hugely successful A Separation in 2011.

Aside from the filmmaker himself, two of his principal cast are also poised to consolidate their recent achievements. Tahar Rahim’s impactful performance in 2009’s A Prophet made him a major discovery in Francophone cinema, and the unlikely snowballing success of The Artist in 2011 announced Bérénice Bejo to the world with atypically self-aware glamour. When I finally saw the latter film – waiting, as I generally prefer to, for tidal waves of mass popularity to break and recede – I still had no idea if Bejo and Jean Dujardin were comedians, genre actors, or professional dancers. So I suppose Bejo had the most to prove in The Past: playing mainly supporting parts throughout her twenties and early thirties until her heavily stylised breakout role in a piece of cine-nostalgia, she is now taking star billing in a high-profile international realist drama for the first time.

But let’s not get anticipation confused with risk here. Ultimately, there’s nothing especially risky about The Past in either premise or execution, apart from the fact that Farhadi is working outside his native setting and language for the first time. And if there’s anything dissonant or unconvincing here, anything lost in the translation of the director’s domestic narrative style from Iranian into French, I’m certainly not the viewer to spot it. The result is an impressively controlled piece of work. Neither Rahim nor Bejo appear to have given a thought to scene-stealing; neither attempts to assert their character’s centrality. Even at their respective emotional high points, it’s Farhadi’s own balance – his refusal to simplify human diplomacy for the sake of easy digestion – that wins out. In The Past, the best intentions of both Marie (Bejo) and Samir (Rahim) are not privileged over their flaws. This even-handedness has become Farhadi’s distinctive style: his films dramatise the moments when our best intentions are scuppered by circumstance, and we are derailed.

In hindsight, it could be argued that A Separation was received so warmly because of its even-handed treatment of issues that were, at the time, of international concern.  It’s a film about the nuances and negotiations between varying degrees of adherence to Islam, and how modern Iranian communities function. A Separation served as an eloquent answer to the question of how societies might handle the widespread observance of Islamic customs and hierarchies. (Short answer: carefully.) As Iran was being sized up as the next potential enemy for the Western powers, Farhadi’s filmseemed to act as a confident ambassador for the country’s social engagement and adaptability (even if the ‘separation’ in question still went ahead in the end.) But are we still so interested in his approach when the story he’s telling has far less immediate political relevance?

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To his credit, Farhadi’s commitment to the complexity of human relations is undimmed. The Past is just as invested in the domino-effect of high-pressure emotional decisions as its predecessor, and its themes are just as deep-rooted in the human experience, if less commonly discussed. Or rather, they are more commonly avoided. Where in A Separation religious observance was the destabilising factor acting upon the family, in The Past the factor is depression. It’s the aberrant force, the wildcard, operating upon them from within, unfathomable and unaccountable. And it’s the only thing that undercuts the status of Ahmad, the wounded father, who has only returned out of necessity for the divorce proceedings instigated by Marie. He finds his former home in a state of troubled transition, freshly occupied in his absence by Samir.

The extended family is rounded out by three children – all step- and half-siblings. Samir’s young son Fouad misbehaves due to apparent homesickness, Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie is almost totally withdrawn and refuses to accept Samir into the family, and Léa, six or seven years old and the only biological child of Ahmad and Marie, is a little indistinct amongst it all. (Or perhaps she’s the only one who’s relatively content – it’s hard to say.) But the darkest cloud bearing down upon the household is the undecided fate of Céline, Samir’s first wife, who lies in a coma after attempting suicide. Upon arrival, Ahmad’s intentions to remain unobtrusive are subtle but clearly expressed. He wants to do his duty and be kind and fatherly to the children, even though he knows his role has been permanently reduced. Marie asks him to speak to Lucie to try and smooth things over.

Lucie has great respect for Ahmad, appearing to hold no grudge against him for ‘breaking up’ the family, but she metes out punishment upon Samir for mistakes he hasn’t yet made. Ahmad finds himself arguing the case for his own replacement as a father figure. As the story progressed, I developed doubts about Ahmad. For the bulk of the film, events conspire to portray him as a kind of modest martyr figure, particularly in contrast with Marie, who appears nervous, tetchy, and potentially manipulative. At first I slightly resisted this; it seemed like a flaw of characterisation. But upon reflection I realised that, in its own time, The Past redresses the balance, offering correctives to any bias it might appear to be holding. As in A Separation, narrative bias is temporary – there’s always more to the situation than we initially know, and we have this in common with all of Farhadi’s characters. We are alongside them, sympathising yet speculating, deep in the tangle of motives. Despite the fact that his storytelling style relies on misapprehensions and ‘reveals’, Farhadi manages to successfully remove himself, as an authorial voice, from the majority of the story.

Unlike in A Separation, when the central incident occurs in the first third (triggering much moral, religious and secular debate), the seismic event affecting the extended family in The Past has, quite fittingly, already happened. The film is a drama of raw wounds, in which its young characters struggle to see much promise in the knowledge that they still have most of their lives ahead of them. My one complaint is that it’s a shade overlong in its final stretch. In order not to apportion blame to anyone in particular, Farhadi is forced to string a few explanatory scenes of reveals and reversals together, and unfortunately the high emotional stakes couldn’t entirely cover the bare-bones plot mechanics on show. This is a shame, because its dramatic pacing is so nearly spot-on.

But it’s Tahar Rahim’s performance that lingers as the most inscrutable, despite his having less over-all screen time than the divorcees. Channelling a similar sullenness to his central turn in A Prophet, he has proven himself a natural at portraying the uncomfortable mix of vulnerability and toughness. As a small businessman and father to a troubled and grieving boy, he is required to stand his ground in the home that another man before him has built. He is the focal point of the film’s two strongest scenes. The first involves a clash of parenting styles, with Ahmad attempting to bestow generosity on the two younger children while Samir is equally determined to uphold a deserved punishment upon them for misbehaving. The second is the film’s final scene, in which ‘the past’ is personified in the most devastating of ways, and Farhadi plays his mostly overtly stylised hand. It is as effective a moment as anything in A Separation. Even if ultimately The Past feels less essential than its predecessor, it’s still a thoroughly worthwhile piece of drama, and a great example of modern human-centred cinema.

Words: Dave Hamilton-Smith