Another high-brow film in this awards-bait month that is certifiably intellectually challenging. The Past (Persian and French, in English subtitles) is the austere, sometimes gripping, occasionally over-packed domestic drama that is the new film by hailed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. I didn’t like it as much as his previous film, the enthralling “A Separation.” It’s a little too self-consciously dour, too Bergman-esque downbeat. Yet it is a fine film that gave me something to deliberate over, and I was moderately touched by the end.
Instead of taking place in Iran, “The Past” takes place and was filmed in the run-down suburbs of Paris, France. This is a portrait of immigrant Iranians in Europe so to speak (Right there I miss the fact that I didn’t see anything of Iran landscapes this time out). The opening shot is a reunion at the airport, with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa, “Leila”) arriving to Paris from Tehran. The jolliness lasts for only a few minutes, it’s kind of a pretense. Wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”) has flown him in, boarding him at the house they lived at together, so they can get in front of a judge to end their marriage. The urgency to get this done is needed so Marie can marry her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet”), who is something of a jerk – or maybe not so much of a jerk as a man burdened by tensions.
The mystery of the film is a painful secret, one that is gradually and very teasingly revealed – Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is becoming estranged. She is a high school student who is said never to be home, who is avoiding Marie and Samir because she disapproves of their courtship. They are harboring an awful secret, Lucie says, and that their impending marriage will be built on a lie. We reasonably think Lucie, as well as younger daughter Lea, are both Ahmad’s children but that isn’t the case either. They were children conceived by other men from long, long ago – all disappeared out of Marie’s life.
There is much to be discussed about “The Past,” and you might find fascination in reading a hundred different reviews on it. For me, I found myself three-quarters in not sure whose story it was. Was it Marie’s story, in how she has gone through different suitors and different husbands, ruining them all with her eruptive temper? Was it Lucie’s story (pic right), who is endlessly distraught over information of Samir’s past? Was it Samir’s story, who is either hiding information or is in denial about his recent history with a former wife? Of course, I had the feeling it was Ahmad’s story only because Mosaffa holds the screen with his diplomatic, well-heeled dignity – but I wasn’t right about that at all. He’s a catalyst, and guide, that impels the three others to reconsider their secretive recent histories.
Nothing is wrong with having a film about multiple protagonists. This is sophisticated and complex writing by Farhadi at his best, and his characters are very verbal who say what they think. There are no dunces in this film, so you’re never too far ahead of them but rather right along with them in their discoveries. I did feel Farhadi was getting too dense with deception, too tricky for his own good, when he introduced another character at the dry cleaners business that Samir owns who became entangled with one of the character’s secrets. It’s like a second puzzle that I didn’t want to solve after I had gladly solved the first puzzle.
I can’t disagree with anyone who declares this to be a fine film. In many ways it is, but I don’t think it’s going to age in memory that well. Certainly not as well as “A Separation” which I can imagine viewing again, since it’s become kind of the fascinating “Rashomon” piece of the 21st century, the kind of puzzle you want to re-solve again and again. “The Past” is hard work, but for one viewing, it’s rewarding knowing you’ve intellectually conquered it. The final tear that is shed, by the single character who hadn’t talked at all, has nonetheless been imprinted into my mind – talk about a final emotional pay-off, the film has one.
130 Minutes. Rated PG-13. Persian and French in English subtitles.
FOREIGN FILM / ADULT ORIENTATION / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT