The Past

Review by Jane Freebury

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has a gift for offering an apparently simple premise only to tease it apart, strand by strand, and reveal it in all its glorious complexity. Two years ago, A Separation wowed audiences and earned Farhadi some glittering international awards, including an Oscar for best foreign language film. Although there were detractors on twitter it was popular in his home country too, so everyone was happy. An excellent result in a country where cultural expression is severely censored and filmmakers can find themselves under house arrest and their work banned for decades, like the estimable Jafar Panahi.

The Past is another superb, finely wrought drama about one of life’s great mysteries, the married couple, with a hint of cross-cultural stuff thrown in for good measure. It is made with French money, and represents the first time the director has worked in France, but it is hard to dismiss the hunch that a secret to Farhadi’s success, and the success of many highly-regarded contemporary Iranian filmmakers today, is their creative response to the particular political environment in their home country.

On this occasion the couple has agreed to divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has just flown in to France from Iran for the settlement. His estranged French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, you will remember her from The Artist) is picking him from the airport to drive him back to what was once their home, but has failed to let him know in advance that she now shares it with another man. Samir (Tahar Rahim),who is of Arab descent, and his young son. More revelations will unfold.
Like Ahmad, we experience a slow dripfeed as important background information about the various characters trickles in, but this journey of surprises is told with great skill. Whoever said ‘what’s past is past’? Certainly, if there’s any equivalent saying in farsi, Farhadi would beg to differ. I wonder what his take would be on the concept of ‘closure’, a cliche that is so overworked in our conversations today?

Farhadi has suggested that A Separation and The Past are ‘siblings’, one male the other female. He consistently shows respect for the positions of all his characters but it tends to be Ahmad’s story, if it is anyone’s. No sooner is Ahmad back than he assumes a paternal role, getting along with the kids, resolving disputes, shopping and cooking dinner, and there is clearly still affection between himself and Marie, although she will gradually reveals her shortcomings.
This is slow cinema, a subtle, elegantly handled exploration of relationships between adults and their children. The conflation of past and present in a final scene in the hospital ward is quite a punchline.

In a capsule: Past and present conflate in this subtle, elegant study of intimate relationships from the Iranian filmmaker who impressed us with A Separation.

4.5 stars