In 2011, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst into the worldwide filmic consciousness with his breakout masterpiece A Separation, which swept up universal acclaim and a bundle of awards notices, all of which is secondary to the strengths of the film itself. Its welcoming reception and subsequent success not only put Iran further on the map as a force to be reckoned with cinematically (even though their film industry still remains vastly underrated in most cinematic circles), but it also boosted Farhadi’s career tremendously, to the point where he was in a position to do whatever he wanted afterwards. Fast forward two years later, where he followed up the success of A Separation with another masterpiece in The Past, which all but cements Farhadi’s status as possibly the purest and most talented dramatist working in cinema today.
Fresh off her virtually dialogue-less performance in The Artist, Berenice Bejo headlined this domestic drama as Marie, the rigid and disciplinary (to the point of being borderline abusive) matriarch of a dysfunctional household in inner city France. The film begins with Marie waiting to meet her ex-husband Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa) in an airport as he arrives from Iran and bring him home with her to finalize their divorce. Once he arrives, Ahmad begins to assimilate with Marie’s new surroundings and is soon thrust into a world of deceit, resentment, and betrayal the likes of which only an immediate family could inflict on one another. Rounding out the main cast is Tahar Rahim as Marie’s current boyfriend, and Pauline Burlet as Marie’s oldest daughter from her first marriage, the latter of whom provides a particularly strong supporting turn amidst this relatively limited ensemble.
Fiercely staged and expertly put together, Asghar Farhadi directs here with increased confidence, and is able to translate his reliably challenging storytelling techniques to an entirely different culture without much alteration. As expected, The Past deals with a lot of similar themes and situations as Farhadi’s previous A Separation, and while this film does feel similar to its predecessor in a number of ways, it comes across more like the logical continuation of the themes presented in that film, rather than a mere rehash of older ideas. Whereas the foundation of A Separation’s storyline is built upon a crumbling marriage and how that impacts the day to day lives of those involved, The Past begins with a married couple already having been separated, and follows them after their marriage is already finished. These thematic components are explored organically throughout the course of the film, and the final thesis is just as provocative as anything Farhadi has made in his career.
For the location of this film, Farhadi opted to go with France instead of his native country of Iran, where all of his previous films have been set. This change in locales could be due to a number of factors, the least of which being the more controversial or at least heavier subject matter dealt with herein, which includes but is not limited to suicide, extreme guilt, and even potential undertones of sexual abuse between Marie and her oldest daughter. But while that last angle is admittedly pretty ambiguous, there is a clear implication of physical abuse, which is all but confirmed by Marie’s introductory scene involving her wearing a splint on her wrist, presumably sprained from disciplining her children too often. Even for Asghar Farhadi’s repertoire, this stuff is pretty shocking, and hat’s off to him for handling it with such elegance and narrative subtlety.
Simply put, The Past is another masterwork from one of cinema’s most gifted living filmmakers. Challenging, engrossing, and well put together, this is just the kind of film that instills my faith in modern cinema. If having to deal with all this expanded universe malarkey and increasing dependence on blockbuster filmmaking in the industry is juxtaposed with directors such as Asghar Farhadi making a brand new film every couple of years, I’d say that’s a pretty fair trade.