The Past (2013) — Image via

The Past

Directed by Asghar Farhadi (2013)

The Past (Le passé), the latest film by director Asghar Farhadi, mines some of the same emotional territory of guilt, denial, and concealment as his previous two films, About Elly and A Separation. And like its predecessors, The Past embeds those themes in a carefully constructed narrative in which the viewer’s efforts to understand the characters’ feelings and motivations are met with a series of frustrations. One new element, however, is a character who functions as an audience surrogate, and his ambiguous fate leaves what is perhaps the film’s most lasting impression.

The Past (2013) — Image via memento-films.comThe story begins at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, where Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has come to pick up her estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has traveled to Paris from his current home in Iran to finalize their divorce. Though Ahmad was planning to check in to a hotel, Marie insists that he stay at the home they once shared together. He seems somewhat dazed as he reenters familiar surroundings only to be confronted with everything that has changed, from the colors of the walls to the presence of Marie’s new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Under these awkward circumstances, Ahmad seems at pains to maintain an even temper and an air of objective distance. He also takes every opportunity to show how helpful he can be, from operating the car’s stick shift so Marie can rest her injured wrist to trying to find out why Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the older of Marie’s two daughters from a previous relationship, is so distant and morose.

The latter inquiry eventually becomes the focus of the film’s attention. Ahmad learns that Lucie stays out late every night because she cannot stand to be in the same house as Samir. He also learns that Samir has a wife, Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), who has been lying in a coma for almost a year after a suicide attempt. As Ahmad shuttles back and forth between Marie and Lucie, attempting to clear up misunderstandings and heal wounds (with his and Marie’s divorce as a brief distraction), he is confronted with additional revelations that complicate his efforts.

The Past (2013) — Image via memento-films.comAnd then, after provoking an unexpectedly bitter confrontation between mother and daughter, Ahmad withdraws. The revelations continue as Marie, Lucie and Samir attempt to sort out their lives and their feelings, but Ahmad stays out of the way, spending his remaining time in France with an Iranian expatriate friend who counsels him to let go of the past. At this point, the audience, which has seen the preceding events largely through Ahmad’s eyes, is unmoored and forced to try to confront the other characters on their own terms. As the film comes to an open-ended conclusion, viewers are left to wonder, almost on Ahmad’s behalf, whether his well-intentioned contributions were for the better or worse.

The Past contains many potentially melodramatic twists and turns, but Farhadi and his actors keep things grounded with a quiet, unsensationalistic approach to the material. Among a generally impressive pool of actors, Bejo stands out for her portrayal of the alternatively guarded and volatile Marie, while Aguis makes an extraordinary impression as Fouad, haunted by his mother’s suicide attempt and struggling to understand the actions of the adults around him. Farhadi’s observant eye and his commitment to allowing events to unfold without excessive explanation invite comparisons to Antonioni, and The Past is a memorable addition to his body of work.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.