There's an elegance and integrity to the work of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi that makes his films feel magical, even though they are devoted to depicting the everyday. This brilliant filmmaker drew the world's attention in 2011 with his emotionally rich ensemble piece A Separation. The film went on to make a lot of critics' Top 10 lists (mine included), and won multiple awards including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. So the cinematic world was watching and waiting for his follow-up, and I'm pleased to announce The Past is as thought-provoking and captivating as its predecessor with moments that will linger long after its final frame.
Starring Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa, The Past follows the interactions of a fractured family over a pivotal string of days. Marie (Bejo) and Ahmad (Mosaffa) are a married couple who have been separated for four years, since he left Marie and her two daughters to return to his homeland of Iran, which he missed desperately. Now, Marie's called him back to finalize their divorce. But Ahmad arrives to find his stepdaughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) in a desperate state over her mother's latest lover (Tahar Rahim), and he seeks to discover why.
What's most fascinating about The Past is how Farhadi, who directs and co-wrote with Massoumeh Lahidji, allows the picture to unfolds. Where most Hollywood films scramble to establish the film's world and setup within the first 10 minutes, Farhadi's story takes its time. He avoids obvious exposition, instead introducing us to two people, meeting up at an airport, whose relationship is initially a mystery. Plot and character details unfurl in naturalistic conversation, and we -- like Ahmad later on -- are encouraged to play detective to figure out who these people are and what is going on between them. It feels a little like listening in on a stranger's conversation, but minus that unsavory feeling of snooping. This I credit to Farhadi's powerful respect for his own characters, who are flawed but never villainous, and clearly hold private lives apart from what we are shown.
Like he did in A Separation, Farhadi presents us with complex characters who have made some bad choices. These mistakes have caused grave harm, marring lives, and yet we can't write any one of these characters off as bad, or wholly to blame. Life is more complicated than that, and The Past poignantly reflects this. Who is responsible for the great loss and pain the characters in this drama suffer is a matter of debate that Farhadi places before the viewer. It's almost like a game, inviting you in to gather the clues, decide whom you trust, and make up for yourself what the film's last shot means. I honestly can't think of another filmmaker who makes movies like this. It's extraordinary, putting a huge amount of faith in the audience, which is rewarded with a drama that envelops and haunts you, its true meanings shifting the more you think on it.
Despite some big drama moments, Farhadi's cast never veers into histrionics. Everything from the costume design to the dialogue and performance style feels dedicatedly realistic, as if we are a fly on the wall of real people's most private moments. The cast deserves credit for much of this elegant world-building, weaving together onscreen bonds and resentments that feel effortlessly made and yet are rarely this profound.
Bejo is a revelation as the brittle and embattled Marie. Mosaffa is mesmerizing as the self-appointed detective Ahmad, who winds his way through a broken home that's no longer his, and yet to which he still feels indebted. Rahim offers an electric performance as Marie's new beau, and even the children in this film are sensational. Jeanne Jestin could be overlooked as the middle child Lea, but deserves notice for her simple and strong performance. Burlet is heartbreaking as tormented teen Lucie, and little Elyes Aguis is fantastic as the furious five-year-old Fouad, whose eyes burn black as the adults around him fail to give him the safety and security of home he so desperately desires.
I find the more I think on The Past, the more I adore it. While it took its time, slowly unveiling its secrets, this method forced me to give my full focus in a way that few movies do. I didn't want to miss a glance, a curse under a child's breath, or a reaction cutaway, as every frame felt crucial to figuring out the emotional mystery at its core. Give yourself over to The Past, because movies this fragile and thoughtful are incredibly rare.
Reviewed By: Kristy Puchko