An Iranian man deserts his French wife and children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife's request for a divorce, unveiling a secret from their past.
We reviewed The Past at the 2013 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL. The film is now available to stream anytime at SBS On Demand (links below).
Asghar Farhadi is a master of allegorical storytelling, of not tackling issues head on. His characters skirt difficult subjects, reaching conclusions through assumption and elimination, or any means besides outright disclosure. Small wonder he’s so skilled at concealing details; as the most high-profile Iranian filmmaker working both at home and abroad, he understands the pitfalls of direct confrontation better than most.
Farhadi’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning A Separation is, like its predecessor, an engrossing study of a break-up, and a domestic mystery about the lies we tell. So closely are the two linked thematically, this new film might well have been called 'A Divorce’, but that would suggest a focus on the present that is clearly not at play; the sorry souls in this Paris drama are stuck looking backwards, and trying to assign blame for past wrongs. It might also make it seem like a sequel, which would do this magnificent film a disservice.
Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris after four years, to finalise his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo). He could have mailed the paperwork from Tehran, but wanted to come in person to 'end things well" with his ex and her two daughters from a prior relationship, who still look to him as a father figure.
Marie and Ahmad haven’t seen each other for four years, so there’s a shyness that could suggest a rekindled flirtation, as she collects him in the opening scene. A near-miss in the airport car park, however, implies she ought to proceed with caution; objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear.
For reasons unclear to Ahmad – and perhaps, even to herself – Marie hasn’t obliged his request to book him a hotel room, instead putting him up at her ramshackle home in the suburbs. It’s the house they used to live in together, but which Marie now shares with fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim). Not that Ahmad knew anything of this before he left Iran, mind you; despite helping arrange his travel, Marie neglected to tell to her (soon-to-be-ex) husband, of her plans to acquire another.
When they arrive at the house, Ahmad finds it in need of attention. Marie and Samir are subjecting the old building to a DIY makeover, but it needs more than a lick of paint to spruce it up. Suffice it to say, both the dwelling and the complex step-family living within it, share a great many issues in common.
Farhadi reveals the discord via the children, in a clear allusion to the legacy of generations who can’t get things right. Marie’s string of failed relationships is impacting her eldest daughter, and the teen refuses to bond with Samir. His own son too, struggles to make sense of the instability, and the confused boy takes a dim view of the stranger in the bottom bunk.
Mother and daughter both ask Ahmad to 'talk’ to the other, and reluctantly, he obliges and does both of their bidding. He is adept at picking up on misdirected anger, and telling everyone what their problems aren’t about. He elicits a series of slow revelations, which cut to the source of the rusted-on resentment. However, it takes its toll on his relationship with Marie ('Why do I have to be here in the middle of this shit?," he fumes).
As the divorce takes effect old tensions start to simmer - and habit dictates the means by which they’re expressed. Marie and Samir certainly snipe and bicker with gusto ('Miss our fights, darling?," Ahmad baits her in a particularly tense exchange). The degree of their fury does not go unnoticed by Samir, who in turn has his own forward momentum stalled by an unseen fourth party.
What may read like the synopsis of a telenovela is offset by Farhadi’s formalist approach. He uses no music, no voice-over, or any other artificial enticements to weep, and the technique immerses you in the pain that comes with picking at scabs.
The film’s broader subtext is fascinating, especially for the way Farhadi incorporates the Iranian diaspora. Domestic battles rage even when you flee them, he appears to be saying, so there's no sense pretending you're free of their grip.
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