Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Past Movie Review

Further cementing himself as Iran’s (or anywhere’s) best director of taut human drama, Asghar Farhadi gives us an excellent follow up to A Separation, the film that won the Oscar for Foreign Language Film and made many critics’ top ten lists (including my own) two years ago. The Past is a masterful display of a great writer at work. Starting from the classical position of staging drama in a condensed period of time, it takes place over a handful of days during which enough secrets, emotions, and hidden motivations are revealed to fill a couple more movies.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Tehran to France at the request of his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), to finalize their divorce so that she can marry Samir (Tahar Rahim). Her daughters from her marriage prior to Ahmad, have wildly different reactions to the impending nuptials. Léa, the younger girl, hardly has much to say on the subject. She is content to have a playmate in Fouad, her soon-to-be stepbrother. On the other hand, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the sixteen-year old, sees right through what’s going on. She loves Ahmad like a father and doen’t want to lose him, but she also questions Samir’s character. She sees only a man whose wife (and Fouad’s mother) lies in a coma from a suicide attempt.

The longer Ahmad stays in the home of his ex-wife and her new lover (which used to be Ahmad’s home), the more is revealed and the more he learns about everyone’s reasons for their behavior. Why does Marie want to marry Samir now? Why is Lucie so terribly angry at Samir and her own mother? Farhadi’s screenplay brilliantly and deliberately extracts the details with painstaking precision. He also crafts characters that are truly human. Marie is a deeply flawed woman. She makes questionable decisions as a mother and we might even paint her as selfish, but Farhadi never turns her in o a monster. Bejo’s performance is what holds the entire thread together. Farhadi uses that quality of likability that she has, what we saw in The Artist, and subverts it by casting her in this role. We expect her, based on our cultural values of how a mother should behave, to make the right decisions. So when she acts in her own self interest we feel conflict within ourselves about our feelings toward her.

This is as much a character study as it is a mystery. Farhadi loves these human mysteries that are never fully resolved just the way a human life and all the events and curiosities that comprise it are never really completed. This time he is exploring the ways our past decisions and actions have far-reaching consequences that we never intended or even imagined. As Ahmad digs deeper into the circumstances of Samir’s and Marie’s affair and the suicide attempt, he discovers that choices made, in some cases in the recent past, have deeply impacted others today in unimaginable ways. Ahmad may have thought he left his past life behind, but he learns how embroiled he is in the lives of his former family. When he walks off at the end, we have to wonder, as I’m sure he must, if he is closing the book on this chapter of his life. Or will this week become a series of events that continues to inform and affect the rest of his life.

Curiously, the final moments of the film don’t involve either Ahmad or Marie, who are the principal characters throughout. It closes on Samir and his hospitalized wife in a quiet moment. He is there for a specific reason. Very gently, the camera shifts its position and almost reveals a key to unlocking part of the film’s mystery. As in A Separation, Farhadi is not at all interested in closing all the gaps. It’s the questions and uncertainty that drive him to these fascinating and beautifully told tales.

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