Asghar Farhadi is one of the great filmmakers of our time. His last two movies – 2009’s About Elly and 2011’s Oscar winning A Separation – stand as modern classics, and helped catapult his native Iran to the foreground of the cinematic world. The auteur’s latest work (and first French language film), The Past, stands – in many ways – as another testament to the director’s brilliance… but with one major flaw. Although technically excellent, The Past is undone by its muddled plot.
The film begins with the story of Ahmad – an Iranian businessman reluctant to finalize his divorce. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Marie, lives in France with her two children (whom Ahmad had once step-fathered) and her current boyfriend, who has a child of his own. Ahmad eventually brings himself to sign the divorce papers, but wants to do it in person. The movie opens with Marie picking Ahmad up from the airport. While the film doesn’t hint at renewed romance, it does make it evident that the two are still fond of one another. Ahmad had once before agreed to go to France only to cancel last minute, so Marie doesn’t book a hotel, thinking he might cancel again. This “forces” him to room at her house – though it’s clear Marie wants him to stay.
Why she wants him to stay is never quite revealed. While this seems to foreshadow a story of rekindled love, Ahmad’s place in the narrative all but disappears once Marie’s boyfriend enters the picture. The film then takes a jarring shift in direction, and becomes the chronicling of a painful and complex family crisis that involves everyone but Ahmad. Although present throughout, Ahmad comes to exist only as mediator and therapist – alleviating the need for characters to resolve things themselves. Whenever Farhadi wants to reveal a character’s inner thoughts, Ahmad is there to prod them along – more plot device than person. Because these interpersonal relationships are so vital to the story, Ahmad’s inclusion as an intermediary feels shoehorned and inorganic. It robs the audience of the opportunity to get to know the characters for themselves.
The movie does most everything else well. Farhadi manages to ease the confusion (at least somewhat) of a cluttered story through sharp edits and easy pacing. The cinematography is, at times, breathtaking. The last frame is particularly beautiful; a haunting visual you will not soon forget. There are also some terrific performances here. Berenice Bejo – known primarily in the US for her lead role in 2011’s Best Picture winner The Artist – is striking in her portrayal of the emotionally fragile Marie. In a weak year for Supporting Actresses, Pauline Burlet’s take on a damaged and guilt-ridden teen should have made her a shoo-in for an Oscar – but she was somehow overlooked for a nomination. They each bring a certain tenderness to their rough characters, making the film more relatable.
The Past is made up of two stories that might have worked separately, but clash when brought together. Although nowhere near his best work, Farhadi still shows bits of brilliance through execution and confirms his status as a top tier director.