Review: The Past (Farhadi, 2013)

Still from the movie The Past

Continuing my deep dive into the work of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, I watched his French-language film The Past this weekend. In a departure from his other settings, The Past takes place in suburban Paris, though some of the characters seem (at least by appearance and name) to be of Iranian descent. The film features the most broken family you can imagine: a husband returning from Tehran to sign divorce papers so his wife (with two daughters from a previous marriage) can marry another married man (with a 5-year-old) whose own wife is in a coma from an attempted suicide. I guess anything simpler wouldn’t be real Farhadi; his characters (especially the women?) always seem a bit tortured by modern life, modern choices, modern men.

The elephant in the room is the mystery of why the wife of the married lover (Samir, played by Tahar Rahim) tried to take her own life. As the audience, we mostly share the perspective of the returned husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). A relative outsider to the goings on of the household (he has been in Iran for the past four years), he doesn’t even know of Samir’s existence until he meets young Fouad, Samir’s son, playing with his wife Marie’s younger daughter and apparently living at the house. We are just as confused as he is as he’s drawn further and further into this complicated family’s tangle of secrets. At the heart of the mess is Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie’s teenage daughter, who is mysteriously resentful of her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend. In classic thriller fashion, information is revealed piece by piece, each new revelation more puzzling than the last. But what, in the end, can be known about the heart of someone who is (mostly) gone from us?

I like that everyone in the film is ostensibly a decent person, trying to do right, but it doesn’t stop them all from crashing vehemently against each other. Isn’t that life? The ending is also satisfyingly ambiguous. Yet, though all the usual Farhadi ingredients are in place–brilliant casting (even the children are convincing), riveting dialogue, superb emotional tension–The Past doesn’t quite stand up to Farhadi’s own past films. It lacks a certain sizzle and pop. And, in unraveling its secrets, it is a little too pleased with itself, like a child who knows something the adults don’t know. Perhaps this is Farhadi experimenting with form, but the experiment is not quite a success because the form, while interesting, distracts from the characters, the relationships–the parts that he does best.

Still, a good, solid, worthwhile movie.

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