Film review: ‘The Past’ makes ordinary, misguided human behavior utterly riveting

The actors are excellent, but the true star of The Past is Asghar Farhadi’s masterful script.
Mike D'Angelo

Four stars

The Past Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) writes dramas so fearsomely complex that merely summarizing them becomes a daunting prospect. The Past, his superb new picture, begins straightforwardly enough, with an Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving in Paris to belatedly finalize his divorce from Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo), with whom he split up four years earlier. Marie plans to wed laundry owner Samir (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet), who has a young son (Elyes Aguis) from a previous marriage; Marie herself has two daughters, neither of whom is Ahmad’s, though he remains close with the older girl, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who seems angry at Samir and her mother for reasons that are initially unclear. Very gradually, disturbing details emerge, starting with the revelation that Samir’s wife, to whom he’s still technically married, is in a coma following a botched suicide attempt. The weight of shared history is felt in numerous other ways, too, and every attempt these well-meaning people make to free themselves from its shackles only finds them becoming further entangled.

Farhadi is working here in a more melodramatic vein than he did in A Separation (a front-runner for the title of the decade’s greatest film thus far), and he occasionally flirts with overkill; information about what happened to Samir’s wife is parceled out in so many confessions and/or discoveries that the last couple of them come across as faintly ridiculous, even though they have a clear purpose. He can also get a tad on-the-nose regarding his theme, handing his characters thesis-statement dialogue like “Now I want to talk about the present. The past is gone.”

For the most part, though, The Past is another psychologically acute, stunningly intricate exploration of fractured family dynamics, with particular, sobering emphasis on the ways that children accidentally wind up caught in adults’ crossfire. All three main actors do fine work (Bejo won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), but the movie’s true star is Farhadi’s expertly constructed script, which makes ordinary, misguided human behavior utterly riveting. If giants like Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov have a contemporary heir, he currently resides in Iran.

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