The past can be a grotesque animal, liable to let discord grow and fester. Here it rears its unresolved head when the arrival of a figure from a previous life brings to the boil simmering secrets. In Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant follow-up to 2011’s A Separation, he shows that old wounds might fade but they are likely to flare up again if left untreated.
It’s Ali Mosaffa’s Ahmad who returns after a four year absence to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo). He’s pleased to see her children, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), but perturbed to find that she’s moved on so much. She now shares her house with Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). While he initially tries to keep his distance, uncomfortable in the middle of this new family dynamic, he soon gets drawn into their tangled and discordant lives.
Ahmad acts as both catalyst and conduit. His arrival may shatter the fragile façade under which they have been living, but he does so by drawing others to open up in his softly spoken and introverted presence. A distance has developed between Marie, Samir and their children as they grapple with interrelated problems individually. Farhadi accentuates this with several shots through glass, characters separated either from each other or the audience, left to mutely converse.
Yet there is a great intimacy waiting to burst out from these people trapped between an awkward past and ungraspable future. The present has become a constrictive stasis. Farhadi keep the camera claustrophobically close to capture the minutest of shrugs and slightest of glances. This allows their internal struggles to surface. Marie adamantly wants to move forward but this sometimes comes at the cost of failing to address problems, while Samir feels pulled back to a life that he’s not quite relinquished. In between them, Lucie is weighed down by past actions and doubts.
The precise direction draws strong performances across the board. These are troubled people confused and alone, never actors playing roles. At times, the story cuts regularly between different characters, at others, scenes are held several beats longer than expected to elicit maximum impact. A moment with Ahmad and Samir sat in silence at the table continues on until it provokes a disturbing sense of unease. Occasionally, Farhadi strays into cliché, the two men posturing over household repairs, or obvious set-ups, particularly with perfume near the end. Even here though, it’s handled with such skill that it has only the slightest material impact on the film.
This is a director continuing to operate at the peak of his abilities. The end result is a nuanced, immersive experience, the final shot alone achieving a graceful resonance beyond most films. It may require Ahmad’s appearance to prompt change, but not dealing with the questions hanging over them was never a sustainable option. Just don’t expect addressing the past to be easy.
The Past is in cinemas 28th March 2014.
DIRECTOR: ASGHAR FARHADI
WRITER: ASGHAR FARHADI WITH MASSOUMEH LAHIDJI
STARS: ALI MOSAFFA, BERENICE BEJO, TAHAR RAHIM, PAULINE BURLET, ELYES AGUIS, JEANNE JESTIN, SABRINA OUAZANI, BABAK KARIMI
RUNTIME: 130 MIN