Doomed to repeat
Although The Past is set in France instead of his native Iran, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2011 film A Separation deals with many of the same themes, most notably the seismic ripple effects of a dissolved marriage. The Past also employs the same elegantly mystical editing as A Separation, where key moments are strategically left off-screen, only for the audience to be stunned and unsettled by their aftermath.
However, The Past is an even slower starter and maintains a lower flame than A Separation, and at times, the film is so unfocused on narrative immediacy that it evolves into an existential mystery before the viewer can even comprehend it. Therefore, the impact of The Past may not be immediate as with its predecessor, but it could prove to have the longer emotional reach.
As the film opens, the sweet but taciturn Ahmad (played by the wonderful Ali Mosaffa, aching with emotional reserve) is returning to France for the first time in years. He is picked up at the airport by—and goes to stay with—his estranged wife Marie (a brilliant Bérénice Bejo, flat-out robbed of an Oscar nomination), and true to Farhadi’s style, the epic awkwardness of this living situation is slyly revealed through the interaction of the characters.
It turns out that Marie is already involved with another man with a small child of his own, and Ahmad’s unexpected presence in the house is more disruptive than he originally thought. Ahmad has come back to France to officially divorce Marie, who he abandoned years before, along with her two children. He has striking similarities to the husband character in A Separation, especially his romantic passivity and an unwillingness to choose expatriate domestic life over the cultural familiarity of his homeland.
However, Ahmad is mournful and compassionate instead of blustery and combative, proving such a wise and sympathetic father figure to his ex-stepchildren that we begin to wonder what drove him away in the first place. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Ahmad’s reserve masks years of regret for abandoning Marie and her kids, and for his own emotional inertia. At one point, he even attempts to dismiss himself from the action by saying, “I’m nobody in this story.”
There is something chaining each one of these characters to a past they can never reclaim, even as they appeal to bureaucratic systems to fill their emptiness and define their existences. Marie signs a legal document to prove that her marriage to Ahmad has ended, but she still can’t let him go, and we see that her new relationship with another Iranian man named Samir (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet) is just an attempt to reclaim an extinct past.
Samir initially seems like a minor character in The Past, but he has the most troubling and tangible connection to a lingering past of anyone in the film, and gradually drifts to the center of the story. We learn that Samir is still married to a woman in a coma, and that her suicide attempt may have been the result—either directly or indirectly—of his extramarital affair with Marie.
For all of the sophistication in Farhadi’s cinematic style, his script is a little less nuanced, the dialogue too often bonking characters on the nose with key themes like CliffsNotes. It is much more thrilling to discover the hushed intricacies of The Past through subtle shifts in relationships and via Farhadi’s observational style—for example, an attempt by Ahmad to give his stepchildren a present becomes a power struggle of parental styles.
The Past slowly develops into a moral whodunit—Samir’s wife’s suicide attempt is never shown on-screen, but the characters obsessively circle around the event, trying to divine their varying levels of moral culpability. A little more (and less) is understood about the suicide as everyone reveals their role in it, and blame is subtly shifted, and guilt gets reassigned with each new version. It all leads to a heartbreaking final scene in which a clean break from the past is offered and rejected.