This review is edited
and expanded from a first reaction festival blog post on empireonline.com
One would hope that by now, Asghar Farhadi’s screenplay for A SEPARATION is being taught in film schools the world over, what with being the best and most tightly structured in the last decade and whatnot. With that in mind, the writer/director’s next effort was always going to have a hard time topping it; THE PAST doesn’t manage that herculean feat, but it’s a bloody well crafted movie all the same.
Another tightly-knotted family drama, THE PAST is set in and around the outer suburbs of Paris, where estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned from Tehran to grant his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) a divorce. Ahmad has been gone for four years, and Marie is now on the verge of remarrying to Samir (Tahar Rahim). The divorce proceeds smoothly enough, until Ahmad accidentally stirs up a secret concerning Samir’s wife – who lies in a coma after attempting suicide some months ago – and sets off a chain reaction of revelations.
Iranian actor Mosaffa will be unfamiliar to most, but will doubtless be appearing on more Western screens after this subtle portrayal of the quiet, thoughtful Ahmad, who often finds himself in the position of mediator - particularly between Marie and their teen stepdaughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Most will know Bejo from her light, deft turn in THE ARTIST, but here she shows another side in the uncertain, quick-tempered Marie. Rahim (A PROPHET), is once again strong as an everyman, gradually revealing complexities as the story progresses.
It’s one of the most subtle, down-played melodramas you’ll ever see, and it’s at once astonishing and delightful to again watch Farhadi’s mastery at giving all of his characters – even the young kids (young Elyes Agouis deserves special mention as a very confused little boy in Samir’s son Fouad) – honest perspectives and motivations; no character is ever anything less than three dimensional, every one of them crucial to his tale. Likewise, every scene in the film links perfectly into the next, without the need for coincidence and without waste. Only towards the very end of Farhadi’s story does the train begin to wobble. It can’t be revealed without spoiling the journey, and it by no means derails the film, but the ending will leave some feeling slightly, shall we say, off kilter.
It feels unfair to criticise THE PAST for lacking the impressive layer of sociopolitical subtext that A SEPARATION has in spades, like comparing apples to oranges (or perhaps more aptly, David Simon's excellent Treme to his off-the-chart, format-redefining-brilliant The Wire), but it is the major difference between the two, and the feeling is all but unshakable. The shadow cast by Farhadi’s previous film may well be positively Everestian, but THE PAST nonetheless will remain one of the finest dramas we will see this year.
THE PAST is released February 6th in Australia, March 13 in New Zealand, and March 28 in the UK.