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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Review: The Past (2013)

* * * *

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

With A Separation and now The Past, writer/director Asghar Farhadi is steadily emerging as one of the greatest contemporary dramatists of domestic chaos. Both are films about marriages that are ending not necessarily out of desire, but out of situational need, and both have plots which turn largely on one incident which gains deeper complexity each time it is returned to and which does not outright destroy the relationships at the story's core so much as cause deep fissures which slowly undermine the foundation of those relationships. The Past is a wholly engrossing film, building itself steadily, sensitively unfolding its secrets, and letting the performances of its principals blossom. Though not as celebrated as A Separation, The Past is a more than worthy follow-up.

The Past begins with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning to France after a four year absence in order to complete divorce proceedings with Marie (Berenice Bejo). Although they're cordial enough to each other, tensions soon begin to rise when Ahmad learns that Marie did not, as he requested, book him a hotel room because, as she will remind him multiple times, the last time she did that he ended up not showing up. She insists that he stay at her house, in part because she hopes that he will be able to get Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the eldest of her two daughters, to open up to him or, at least, to stop acting out, and in part (or so Ahmad believes) as a means of punishing him by forcing him into proximity with her fiance, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). The relationship between Marie and Samir has been difficult for the children and created a great deal of strife in the household. Lucie, in addition to being upset about the circumstances under which the relationship started, feels anxious about having another father figure thrust into her life who might one day disappear from it as her biological father and Ahmad have. Fouad is confused and angry, still reeling from the absence of his mother who is in a coma from which she seems unlikely to awaken following a suicide attempt. Marie's younger daughter, Lea (Jeanne Jestin), meanwhile, is lost in the shuffle as the adults struggle to negotiate Fouad's violent outbursts and Lucie's frequent disappearing acts. Despite himself, Ahmad is drawn into the ongoing drama of the household.

The plot of The Past revolves around two incidents in the past which have continued to echo into the characters' present. One, dealt with more abstractly, is the dissolution of Ahmad and Marie's relationship, which shares some similarities with the relationship that Samir had with his wife and which has resulted in things between Ahmad and Marie remaining somewhat unresolved, a fact which escapes neither Samir nor Lucie (Lucie, in particular, is very candid about what she thinks, which is that Marie is with Samir because he reminds her of Ahmad). The other, dealt with more directly, are the circumstances which led to the suicide attempt and subsequent coma of Samir's wife. As the film progresses, and different characters are able to tell their version of events leading up to the suicide attempt and the role they may or may not have played in it, the details are slowly drawn in and the incident takes on increasing complexity. While it may appear, at first, that there is a clear cut villain (or two) in the situation, as more information and further perspectives come to light, nothing seems quite so simple. There is tragedy at the center of this story but it is not tragedy resulting from any one person's act against another; rather, it is tragedy resulting from multiple lives converging without the people involved being able to see beyond themselves in order to see anyone else clearly.

Communication, or the lack of it, is at the heart of The Past. Throughout the film Marie and Ahmad circle around their past together, touching on the issues that drove them apart without ever directly confronting those issues. By the time Ahmad works himself up to addressing some of those issues, Marie is so worn down by the drama of the present that she no longer has the patience to hear it, which leaves the specifics of their relationship and breakup somewhat veiled within the story and which means that their past together can never truly be settled. Instead of working to put the past to rest, the characters in the film view each other through their own myopic lenses, making assumptions about each other and events without really seeing the perspective of the others or the bigger picture, and in doing so leave loose ends everywhere. The film's final scene, which at first may seem like little more than a means of bringing into the frame a character who has hung over the narrative like a shadow, plays out the entire story in miniature. Samir goes to visit his wife in a last ditch attempt to draw her out of her coma, imploring her to squeeze his hand if she's still present in there somewhere. But because he's concentrating on her hand, waiting to feel the pressure of her hand on his, he completely misses the fact that when he leans in close enough for her to smell his cologne, she sheds a tear. He gets the sign that he so desperately wants, but he's so focused on his own notion of how the sign should present itself that he misses its real expression. The characters in the film are constantly crossing with each other without ever quite connecting.

The elements of The Past's plot, and the circumstances of its characters, could easily lend itself to high melodrama, but Farhadi works to modulate emotions and keep them to the realm of realism. There is a violent outburst late in the film, after one character has learned what another has been keeping secret, which could have gone straight over the top and felt too "big" for a story this precisely focused but which instead feels emotionally raw and real because Farhadi keeps such tight control over the narrative. The success of The Past rests in no small part on Farhadi's ability to find the perfect balance between allowing the plot - which keeps building and building right up until the end, adding new angles and perspectives without ever toppling over - to drive the story and allowing the characters to do so. Fundamentally the film is about relationships, and it uses its plot as a means of exploring a series of different kinds of relationships and how they inform and affect other relationships, from the sexual/romantic relationships between adults, whether current or historical, to the relationships between children and their parents, and between children and the partners of their parents (Marie is not Fouad's mother, and Ahmad is not Lucie and Lea's father, but they relate to those children in ways that their biological parents perhaps can't). The relationships between the principals are fully fleshed out, if not necessarily laid out and explained in explicit terms, and the emotional stakes of the drama at hand are incredibly high. The characters want desperately to move towards the future, hoping that that will bring some feeling of resolution or peace, and are unable or unwilling to acknowledge what the film itself knows: the past is never truly passed and will haunt the future just as it does the present. The Past is itself a haunting piece of work, a film of great subtlety which reveals more of itself with each viewing and is worth returning to over and again.

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