Following on from the success of the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi returns with the equally raw The Past (2013). Continuing his study of realistic circumstances that threaten to disrupt intricately constructed familial ties, The Past appears to be an apt embodiment of Farhadi’s career thus far, a fraught melodrama that comprises themes from his previous work and ties them into a coherent, if not entirely intricate, histrionic bow. Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa plays Ahmad, a man who, following a four-year separation from estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), returns to Paris upon her request in order to finalise their divorce procedure.
Refusing to let him stay in a hotel whilst the airline search for his missing luggage, Marie welcomes Ahmad back into the house they once shared, which is now also playing host to her new fiancée Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young, aggressive son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), whose dual presence conflicts with Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Quickly becoming entrenched once again in the cluttered – both physical and metaphorical – household he was once an integral and supportive part of, Ahmad is the unwitting catalyst for an overload of ensuing emotional unrest as he begins to realise how much Marie and Samir’s relationship is in fact founded on secrecy and clandestine beginnings. As tensions begin to mount for all involved, the past has devastating ways of coming back to haunt them.
Part-study of divorce, part-depiction of overly complex family dynamics, The Past is a spectacularly acted drama that tackles weighty issues with Farhadi’s typically adroit and effortlessly engrossing focus on the minutiae of humanity writhing under the telescope. As the story slowly unravels, what begins as a portrayal of a protracted family blighted by tragedy does, in its second half, become more of a mystery as the truth behind Samir’s (nominally ex) wife’s comatose state – and how his relationship with Marie originated – is teased out. This augments the way Farhadi balances the focus between the adults and their distinctly characterised children; this is as much their story as it their parents, perhaps more so when Lucie becomes more intrinsic a part of Ahmad’s desire to know the truth.
It’s with this second half that Farhadi’s juggling of each plot point becomes slightly uneven, allowing the subtlety he is known for to become drowned out by scenes of heightened distress. Although there is little respite from the ongoing anguish, the underlying power of the film comes through simple moments of almost unbearable intimacy, be it a glance shared between a father and his son, or two characters conversing through glass barriers, the camera placed from afar, watching but choosing not to listen. It’s a delicate motif used throughout The Past, which is at times contrived but for the most part a sombre drama of palpable complexity.
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