Family dramas are usually light on plot. They borrow a lot from theater: a lot of quirky characters are put in the same place, with one event or discovery that’s the catalyst of what’s to follow. A good recent example is John Wells’s August: Osage County (TMT Review), which uses the death of a patriarch as an opportunity for bitter multi-generational histrionics. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past has little interest in typical tropes of drama or languid scenes that don’t push the story forward. Instead, the latest from the Iranian filmmaker brims with complex morality, flawed characters, and inexorably sharp plotting.
Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France to finalize his divorce with Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo). She picks him in a car that belongs to Samir (Tahar Rahim), her new lover. Ahmad does not know Samir and Marie live together — in the house she used to share with Ahmad, no less — and they’re not alone. Samir has a young son named Fouad (Elyes Aguis), while Marie has two daughters: the teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet), and the younger Léa (Jeanne Jestin). It is important to note that while Ahmad is not the father of Marie’s daughters, he still has a relationship with them. Oh, and Samir comes with baggage, too: his wife is in coma, and still he plans to marry Marie. Ahmad takes in this arrangement with quietly and with tact, yet there is a secret — several secrets, come to think of it — that have the potential to ruin this delicate new family.
The Past has the airtight narrative of a thriller. At first, the tensions are obvious (i.e. the idea of a new man in Marie’s life does not exactly thrill her daughters). But then we see just how these characters fell into each other lives, and what that means for their future. Before Ahmad arrives, the characters make several important choices, and almost all of them happen off camera. Instead of dealing with painful uncertainty, which is what created tension in Farhadi’s last film A Separation, The Past is all about the consequences of lies and withholding information. And at each turn, Ahmad must decide whether to observe or intervene.
The director has high demands for his audience — as the drama unfolds, we’re forced to keep track of several interlocking timelines — but he also respects our intelligence. Each new layer forces a recalibration of right and wrong, yet Farhadi is no moralist. He has deep sympathy for his characters, and is always careful to show why, precisely, they choose to reveal what they know (or don’t).
Farhadi’s direction doesn’t show off, but it’s not simple. He uses physical barriers, whether a door or a plane of glass, to isolate his characters from each other. Even the first scene contains hidden depths: after Marie and Ahman enter Samir’s car in the rain, the abrupt title card appears when they turn and look through the foggy rear windshield. Before we even meet anyone else, Farhadi establishes the inherent flaws about Ahmad’s visit. His time in Paris is as foggy as the windshield, and squinting will not bring any additional clarity. The cinematography, full of inky blues and greens, adds little glamor to the Paris suburbs.
This kind of dense storytelling has high demands for its actors, and not in the typical sense. There is no overacting here, but neither is there any opportunity to relax. Instead, each actor must completely understand the myriad of details involving these people, and intuit how they might behave when they have imperfect information. As Ahmad, Mosaffa is the most sympathetic character, and not just because he’s a cipher for the audience. He has tender scenes where he understands he’s not a father, yet gleams enough about children that he’s able to establish a rapport, however tenuous. Ahmad is no fool, either — he waits until the right time to express his frustrations with Marie — and the depth of his decorum, as well as his decency, is astonishing. With a run-time less just over two hours, it’s rare to see a character so well-developed.
The other clear stand-out is Bejo as Marie. To one extent or another, she’s responsible for this mess. She’s the one who chose these three men, and she’s the one who’s made it difficult to transition from one husband to another. Her kids resent her, and she can barely keep a grip on her deep sense of guilt. It’s easy for the audience to judge Marie, but Bejo does not. She has her flaws, sure, yet she tries to keep the household functioning more than anyone else. Still, in one scene with Bejo, Marie finally explodes: in the hands of any other filmmaker, it would not seem extraordinary, yet Farhadi has the patience to let the tension simmer. Marie has her reasons to be angry, but underneath her fury is a sense of self-loathing, even disgust. There is never a direct moment of contrition, and thanks to Bejo’s non-verbal acting, it would be superfluous anyway.
Children are conservative because they lack experience. They have a status quo that they understand, whether it’s functioning or not, so any significant changes to that are deeply disturbing. Samir and Marie’s demands for their children are the catalyst for The Past, so they rebel through tantrums or through sinister interventions they cannot fully comprehend. The older generation hurts the younger generation and vice versa, so the irony of The Past is how the children have the maturity to understand why this new household arrangement cannot work, while the Marie and Samir delude themselves. At least Samir’s wife, unlike Ahmad, is blissfully unaware of how infatuation can lead to a sordid, tragic disaster.