The Past, Asghar Farhadi’s heartbreaking follow up to his heartbreaking A Separation, opens with a scene that is so perfectly telling of what awaits the viewer in the next two hours that I am still reeling from it. Marie is at the airport, awaiting her estranged husband Ahmad to arrive from Iran, so they can get a divorce the next day. She spots him on the other side of the glass and tries to get his attention. He can’t hear her and the next few seconds are that semi-comical/semi-tragic dance of missed communication and crossed signals. When they do establish contact and sit down into a car she is borrowing (from “someone”), leaving the parking lot requires a joint effort (looking if there is room, helping with gear changes etc) and as Marie almost pulls back into another car, Ahmad looks her straight in the eye and says: What are you doing?
And off they go.
What Marie IS doing is starting a fresh life for herself. Along with her two daughters (Lea is the sweet, younger one, and Lucie, the beautiful but sad eyed teenager) are living in a house that they once shared with Ahmad. There is also Marie’s boyfriend Samir, his son Fouad and, it turns out, a warehouse worth of secrets and lies. All of which are about to come tumbling out.
Farhadi is a director that relies heavily on the narrative drive of his movies and as a reviewer it is hard to know how much is too much to share. Even all internet available synopsis seem to focus exclusively on the developments revealed in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movies, as if they’re worried of spoiling it all for you. After some soul searching, I have decided that this much is ok to share:
Obviously the equilibrium in this house in transition (in more ways than one, from the household members to the renovations which seem to be as ongoing and messy as the lives they surround) is delicate. So delicate that you, as a viewer, feel the tension in almost every movement. Marie and Samir are a ball of stress and tension even if Ahmad’s presence is supposedly going to solve all their issues. Lucie is never home and never happy anymore. Fouad is an angry, sad little boy, acting out when faced with any authority. And Lea is caught in between all of it, not showing her little big emotions probably out of fear that those may be the final drop that causes the scales to tip.
Ahmad arrives into the house that was once his, not knowing what he is walking into (or maybe not wanting to know), and is instantly thrown in as a middle man for everyone’s unspoken problems. He and Marie themselves have a complicated history that, it seems, was never brought to a full closure, but the tensions in the house take precedence over what was already going to be a heady few days. Somehow, within the first few hours (minutes?) of his stay, Ahmad (and the viewer) realizes this divorce is the least emotional thing he will be dealing with during this trip.
The pace is relentless. Every sentence means something. Every look, ever tear, every (almost) smile, every pregnant silence does, too. This is a movie during which you cannot leave for the rest room: you may very well miss a pivotal glance or read-between-the-lines revelation. In the middle of all of that the actors (led by the lovely Berenice Bejo, in her first major role since her break-out in The Artist and Ali Mossafa in a quietly authorative turn as Ahmad) are all superb, and surprisingly subtle in what essentially turns into an almost soap opera level of melodrama. Farhadi does go a tiny bit overboard with the plot points in the second half, but his ability to set the scene and tone for the story as a whole go a long way to keep things coherent.
Speaking of which, the film is as beautiful and sad to look at as it is watch, photographed in beiges and grays of suburban melancholia. Yes, this is a movie set in Paris in theory, but these people’s Paris is so far removed from being a city of light, it is actually a city of permanent rain and mud and mysterious stains and unfortunate spills and ravaged suitcases. No one is getting out of there and into the sunshine any time soon, Farhadi makes sure you know. The fresh coats of paint turn out to be something you’re allergic to, the new relationships are maybe even more complicated than the complicated ones of the past, and family as a concept is not a safe haven you wish for but something both fluid and treacherous.
In the end, the movie (which, in case this has not been made clear is VERY GOOD) is not perfect. Exasperating, heartbreaking, convoluted at times, much like life itself, The Past is something to live through, and hope you make it to the the next chapter of the story in one piece. And that, in a way, is the highest of praises, in some ways.