The Past

Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to A Separation is rarely less than compelling.
Daniel Herborn
Published on February 03, 2014


Nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, family drama The Past is writer-director Asghar Farhadi's first film since 2011 release A Separation, one of the most critically lauded films of the past decade.

It begins with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving in Paris from Tehran to finalise divorce proceedings with Marie (Berenice Bejo). He wanted her to book him a hotel — she hasn't, the first crack in the veneer of politeness. Temporarily back at his former home after a four-year absence, he finds Marie is now living with Samir (Tahar Rahim). The home is a mess of wet paint and half-finished renovations, as though in the process of removing any trace of Ahmad's time there.

Ahmad has to share a room with Samir's eight-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who is acting out because of his confusion about the divorce. Ahmad snipes at Marie about this arrangement and the ensuing bickering bothers Samir, who senses there is something too familiar about their disagreements, that the feuds have the tone of a couple with unfinished business.

Meanwhile, Ahmad's teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), has become unhappy and is often absent from home, largely because of the circumstances of Samir's split with his wife and his new relationship with her mother, as well as her own guilt at a train of events she believes she has set in motion.

The Past starts off being about the final dissolution of Ahmad and Marie's relationship and the messy, unsatisfying experience of formally ending their marriage, but the story soon spirals off into something else entirely. Just when one strand seems to have exhausted itself, another complication arises, adding to the tragic mess these characters find themselves in. Yet while it is a film of revelations, there is never hint of melodrama and the story unfolds with complete, compelling realism.

The small details are incredibly well-observed: one scene where Samir asks Lucie to pass him a kettle and she holds it so he has to scald his hands on the hot surface speaks volumes of their relationship, as does his almost comically stoic refusal to acknowledge what is happening. Another scene places Ahmad and Samir at a table together and watches as their silence and awkward refusal to engage with each other grows into something almost painful.

Berenice Bejo won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her committed performance here, but The Past is a true ensemble piece with Burlet exceptional as the shell-shocked, troubled Lucie and Rahim having some brilliant moments as his Samir develops from being a sullen figure annoyed by the arrival of his lover's ex-husband into something much more layered and complex.

A film that is rarely less than compelling for its entire running time, The Past gets even better in its wrenching unforgettable final scene, which is all the more emotionally powerful for unfolding at a glacial pace. Acting as both a haunting coda to proceedings and shedding new light on the motivations of its characters, it is an overwhelming last gasp of a truly great film.


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