Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has been making great dramas since 2003’s Dancing in the Dust, but it was his 2011 masterpiece A Separation that deservedly pushed him directly into the worldwide spotlight. A tense study of marital constructs and gender equality, A Separation packed a wallop, and rightfully marked Farhadi as one of the world’s finest filmmakers. The Past may not reach the exact same majestic heights as its predecessor, but it’s still up there.
We meet Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as he arrives in France in order to finalise his divorce with Marie Brisson (Bérénice Bejo). Marie is in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife is currently in a coma. Marie and Samir aren’t exactly on stable ground, and Ahmad’s arrival is but another factor that will set forth a series of dramatic revelations and solidify the sad fact that, sometimes, the past can work its way back into existence. As is often the case, children are the ones left in the wake of such breakdowns.
On its most basic level, The Past reads like a soap opera. Relationship qualms, the troubles raising children, the tensions between exes and current loves, it’s all here, but it’s Farhadi’s downright impressive screenplay that takes what could be a simple melodrama and infuses it with an unexpected level of tension and gravitas. Farhadi explores how all things in the past, whether they are minor or major incidents, lies, loves or even moods, can affect present lives. This may be true in every element of life, but arguably none more so than in relationships.
As Ahmad is drawn into the lives of this troubled family, he struggles with finding at which point he is to act out of responsibility and at which point he should act out of compassion. Ahmad acts as our detective of sorts, slowly unravelling the issues that affect Marie’s teenage daughter and the mystery of why exactly Samir’s wife lies in a coma. To say more would be to say too much, suffice it to say that every revelation hits its mark hard. Farhadi creates a relationship drama that, at times, feels like a tightly constructed thriller; a film that keeps you on your toes, while hitting those emotional buttons perfectly.
The cast is absolutely fantastic. Bérénice Bejo, who shined in Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning The Artist, puts in a powerful turn here. She’s more than convincing as a somewhat unstable mother, a woman prone to emotional peaks and whose reliance on others has proven to be a hindrance, especially in relation to her children. Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim are equally as impressive. Mosaffa’s gentle nature provides a wonderful character for us to learn with, while Rahim depicts Samir’s emotional turmoil as honestly as possible. Also worthy of a strong mention are the two child actors who bring Farhadi’s emotional backbone to life. Their innocent eyes witness the unfolding chaos, equally confused and hurt. They’re devastating, providing a powerful extra layer to the already strong proceedings. Pauline Burlet adds the final touch of class as Lucie, Marie’s teenage daughter.
The Past is potent filmmaking, a multi-layered analysis on pain and love, how they can tie us together and break us apart. A strong sense of characterisation and emotional depth is infused throughout, culminating in an unforgettable final moment that you won’t be forgetting in a hurry. Our past is a combination of ups and downs; let this film be the former in your film-watching history.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10