With his first film in the West, the extremely gifted Asghar Farhadi draws on the very themes of the stranger, layering cultural dislocation and social estrangement in fashioning an alternately chilling and often-heart piercing beauty in the (primarily) French language film, The Past.
The director's first feature since his breakthrough A Separation won the Academy award for best foreign language feature, the new work conflates many of the ideas and preoccupations of that film and that of its immediate predecessor, About Elly.
Like A Separation the slow-burn narrative details the rupture of a relationship. Like About Elly which turned on the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, the rupture is a means to introduce the larger network of characters, using incident, social detail and color in developing the story.
What feels euphoric and liberating about the telling is how Farhadi elegantly shifts among his characters, as though each figure were passing a baton and telling a part of their story, revealing their condition, before passing on to the next person in the carefully construction formation.
In The Past Ahmad (Ali Mossafa, pictured at top) returns to France after being estranged for four-years to complete the divorce from his French wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, the silent film actress and love interest in The Artist). The taciturn, somewhat withdrawn Ahmad is installed, somewhat awkwardly, at the ramshackle suburban home of Marie, where she lives with her two daughters from a previous relationship.
The oldest daughter, Lucie (the ravishing young actress Pauline Burlet, pictured below right), is in a state of war with her mother over her intentions to marry Samir (the great young actor Tahar Rahim, of Jacques Audiard's A Prophet). Her disapproval takes on outright disobedience and elaborate acting out. Samir, who owns and operates a dry cleaning goods store, also has a young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), a friend of Marie's younger daughter, Lea (Jeanne Jestin). His own life and backstory is complicated by his comatose wife.
A Separation used an unraveled marriage to dissect the legal, social and sexual mores of a closed, even reactionary society, especially its harsh, almost retaliatory treatment of women. The Past is even more pointed politically, suggesting the moral and emotional costs of exile. Ahmad is trapped between East and West, openness and confinement.
Farhadi is very careful how he apportions information, gleaned from conversations, pauses and tightened faces. Farhadi works in a harsh, realistic vein separate from the neo-realist impulses of somebody like Abbas Kiarostami. Like Kiarostami, the moral rigor and intelligence is a constant.
From the very opening, inside an airport terminal, an invisible wall constricting the key players, the movie uses imagery to express its ideas, gracefully but also emphatically. Even the movie's inventive, quick title sequence (from the French, Le passé), is an act of inspiration, the white on black letters, mimicking the wiper blades on a car windshield, suggest an act of erasure, of coming clean.
The direct cinematography of Mahmoud Kalari is steady, observational and pellucid.
Just like his other work, Farhadi is exceptional with actors. He conducts extensive rehearsals before shooting. He creates a tension, of feeling and movement, in the bodies and faces of his actors. The young kids are funny, graceful and revealing without ever being sentimentalized, like a wonderful exchange between the young boy and his father about whether or not he owes Ahmad a personal apology over a minor transgression.
The tension and unresolved emotional interaction between Ahmad and Marie, for instance, colors and deepens the material. If the new work never quite gets at the level of A Separation, the new work is more plot and incident-intensive, and not always to its advantage. As a point of comparison it lacks the subtlety and range of the director's masterpiece.
Still, even when the storytelling veers out of rhythm, the actors find a way to smooth over and refine the rough edges.
Ahmad is a double exile, removed from his homeland and drawn back to his adopted place, but still frozen and on the outside, unable or unwilling to reveal his own feelings about Marie. Rahim (pictured below) is often exceptional at capturing the wounded grievances and buried resentments of the working class; here he exudes a ferocious and feline presence, able to shift in a moment's notice, from joy to anger.
Pauline Burlet, who has a remarkable and uncanny resemblance to Marion Cotillard (she played the younger version of Cotillard's Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) is a vivacious and beautiful woman, with deep, liquid eyes, but she smudges her beauty to convey the inner turmoil and even desperate emotional confusion of the young woman. Her work is exceptional and deep. Taking a part originally written for Cotillard, Bejo won the best actress prize at Cannes last May and she makes the part her own.
Marie is vulnerable, calculating, flawed and deeply human. She makes the whole work sing.