Stuck: who’s at fault this time?
Asghar Farhadi is the gifted and self-assured Iranian writer-director who won international attention and the Best Foreign Oscar for his 2011 Farsi-language film A Separation. Now, like his distinguished compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film in Tuscany (in English, with some Italian) and then one in Japan (in Japanese), Farhadi has shot a film in France (in French, with some Farsi). Farhadi is a filmmaker who draws a great deal of attention to himself. His films are riveting concatenations of intimate, precisely observed family details concerning guilt, responsibility, resentments, and loyalties. The Past is as much focused on those things as A Separation, with a separation, an old husband, a new younger husband-to be, a pregnancy, a suicide, troublesome and disturbed children from multiple parents, people from each generation drawn in several directions at once, wooing, squabbling with, and suspicious of each other.
In fact this is the trouble: Farhadi has basically redone A Separation and transferred it to France. The details vary, but Farhadi is working over very much the same themes, only with the dialogue in French (with a few short scenes in Farsi). True, the slow, steady, two-hour unfolding of details shows the same masterful control as A Separation. But with the huge shift of country and language comes an erosion of sympathy, atmosphere and of culture. Maybe Farhadi is showing as some say that “free” westerners after all face the same problems of constraint, secrecy, and stasis as arise under Iran’s repressive system. But is an Iranian the best person to tell us this? And after a while with its constant surprise revelations and melodramatic misunderstandings this movie begins to seem like a whole season of a soap condensed into a very long, slow two hours. There is also less humour or variety here than in A Separation. We never get a deep insight into anyone’s life, or feel deep emotions. There are plenty of child, and adult, shouting matches. But nobody really sits down and has a good cry, despite ample cause for sadness and regret — the “Past” everyone is picking over and trying to leave behind. Farhadi, whose meticulous control over the film and every line of dialogue verges on the stifling, never stops to let us and his film breathe, and the effect is both wearying and numbing — even though these people are good looking and the yellow-tinted images of rigorously un-touristy French Parisian exteriors and pleasantly cluttered interiors by d.p. Mahmoud Kalari are handsome.
Things begin when Marie (Bérénice Bejo), who is French, comes to an airport outside Paris to retrieve Ahmad (writer-actor-filmmaker Ali Mosaffa), her Iranian husband, who went back to the homeland four years ago. A lot of trouble might have been avoided if emails had been exchanged and read — or in another case, not read. Ahmad’s has come to tie up loose ends — or is it to restore ties? But he wanted to be in a hotel, only Marie brings him home. He seems to make nice with the two little kids there, Foad (Elyes Aguis) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin). Foad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), Marie’s new boyfriend, who turns out to be living at the house in a town some way from Paris where Ahmad used to live. This is a surprise to Ahmad. Marie’s arrangements are also a surprise to Samir.
Partly we seem to be challenged to figure out who all these people are, putting us somewhat in the same place as the characters. Whose daughter is Léa? There is also, and importantly, Ahmad and Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is angry, rebellious, and insecure. Where she is and where’s she’s going to spend the night takes up time in the film’s action. So does uncertainty about whether Foad will sleep upstairs with Ahmad, this “Monsieur” he doesn’t know, or downstairs, or back at Samir’s house — because Samir is going to have to leave the other house to Ahmad while he’s there. Things are getting too crowded.
Despite the theme of “The Past,” none-too-subtly hinted at when the car at the airport shifts into reverse, the focus is on a few specific issues and doesn’t fill in much background. It’s also never explained specifically why Ahmad, who speaks fluent French, chose to return to Iran. Samir has a dry cleaning establishment; it would seem a flourishing one. His ethnicity is never specified, and some non-French viewers seem to have concluded he is Iranian, like Ahmad. The French audience know Tahar Rahim, who plays Samir and gained fame as the young protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, is an Arab born in France of Algerian descent. But the big revelation is that though Samir and Marie plan to marry, Samir has a wife in a coma. Puzzling over how and why this happened, and (naturally!) who is to blame provides the focus for a lot of the second half of the film.
Marie is obviously not quite done with Ahmad, or she’d have put him in a hotel; and Samir may not have made the final choice of Marie and given up on his comatose wife Céline, as the final sequence shows. The real pivot-point, if there is one, may be Lucie. The younger kids may adjust to whatever family rearrangement comes about — though Foad (well played by the feisty Elyes Aguis) makes a lot of trouble for Marie, Ahmad, and Samir; but Lucie has suffered, she says, through her mother’s breaking up with three men in succession. She is afraid that Samir won’t take either, and she resents Samir because she thinks he’s just going to be a frustration. But sometimes it seems as if, as on daytime TV, more mundane issues rise equally to the fore. Will it ever stop raining? Will that leak under the sink get fixed? How did that lady’s dress get stained at the dry cleaner’s? Will the illegal worker be hired back? Will Céline awake from her coma? Obviously Farhadi cares about all this material, but when one thinks back over it, it all seems as contrived as some of the crude symbols, like Marie and Ahmad talking through a thick wall of glass at the airport but not understanding each other. Nothing seems as urgent or real as A Separation, and there is the same sometimes limiting view of life as one long squabble.
Le passé, 130 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes 17 May 2013 where Bérénice Bejo receoved the Best Actress award; shown at many other international festivals. The French script was written from Farhadi’s original by Massoumeh Lahidji, who did the French subtitles of A Separation and rendered Kiarostami’s Certified Copy into English. The new film was acquired by Sony Classics for US distribution. Limited US release began 20 Dec. Critical acclaim in France (Allociné press rating: 4.2) and the US (Metacritic rating: 84). Shown in NYC at Film Forum, where it was screened for this review. Debued in the UK at LFF 17 Oct. 2013.
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