“The Past” is about the past (no surprise there), and how decisions made then can dramatically affect the present and future. But it’s also about communication — verbal and non-verbal, the things we say and don’t say, the misunderstandings that can arise. The first scene has a soon-to-be-divorced couple separated by glass at an airport, unable to hear each other, but able to communicate what needs to be said in that moment. Later, they’ll be speaking face-to-face and miss each other’s point. So it goes.
This is Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s followup to his Oscar-winning drama “A Separation,” which also dealt with marital difficulties in an intelligent, grown-up fashion. (“The Past” was Iran’s submission for this year’s Academy Awards, yet somehow failed to make even the shortlist of potential nominees.) The setting is France this time, where mother-of-two Marie (Berenice Bejo) is waiting for her husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), to sign the papers and finalize their divorce. Ahmad, an Iranian who has been living in his homeland since separating from Marie, has returned to France for this purpose after dragging his feet for some time.
The domestic situation is complicated. Marie’s children, 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and much younger Lea (Jeanne Jestin), are the products of pre-Ahmad relationships, and they don’t call Ahmad “dad.” Marie is now engaged to a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has a young stepson of his own named Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Fouad’s mother is out of the picture for reasons that complicate things even further.
Marie didn’t book a hotel for Ahmad while he’s in town, ostensibly because he has canceled before and she wasn’t sure he’d show up. But the deeper reason, as other family members suss out, is so that Ahmad would be forced to stay with her and the kids and see how well they’re doing without him. There’s awkward tension as Ahmad tries to be easygoing, to be fatherly to the kids without overstepping his bounds, and to be gracious to his wife’s new partner. He’s also put in the difficult position of witnessing a great deal of animosity from Lucie toward her mother.
Farhadi is an elegant storyteller. He reveals information about the characters and what has already happened to them little by little, drawing us into their lives much more completely than we would be if he had just dumped all the pertinent information on us in the exposition. We find ourselves playing detective, keeping track of the details we learn so we can assemble the whole picture, the way you might do if you were a non-relative eavesdropping at a family reunion.
Not only is the story more interesting when it’s told this way, it helps Farhadi avoid moralizing. By the time we fully comprehend what So-and-So’s motives were for doing such-and-such, we’ve come to understand So-and-So well enough not to be too judgmental. Indeed, there’s some questionable behavior in everyone’s past, the reverberations of which are still being felt. Marie’s series of long-term but ultimately failed relationships have taken their toll on the kids, who have reacted to the instability in ways that will have yet more consequences, and so on.
To spell out every detail of the story would be a disservice to it. On paper, the plot is melodramatic and soapy. In Farhadi’s hands — and aided by these sensitive, reined-in performances — it feels sensible and restrained, full of drama but not with histrionics. It’s a cautionary tale about the heartbreaking effects of poor communication, and a reminder that the past will always be with us.
B+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; French with subtitles; )
Originally published at About.com.