Time Out says
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s last film, the Oscar-winning ‘A Separation’ (2011), was a taut, subtle drama centred on a well-off Tehran couple going through a divorce. Farhadi’s style is immediate and intense: he employs an unadorned realism to tease quiet, important themes from in-the-moment stories. That same style is very much present in his first French film, ‘The Past’, a story of a Parisian family in emotional flux and touched by tragedy. It’s intricate and often mature as drama, but it’s also meandering and at times heavy-handed, even melodramatic, and the tight control of time, place and action which made ‘A Separation’ so gripping is just not there.
In some ways, ‘The Past’ brings together the best of ‘A Separation’ with the worst of Farhadi’s previous film, 2009’s ‘About Elly’, which was more hysterical, less restrained. Still, he has a keen, sympathetic eye for human weaknesses and strengths. The film’s early scenes as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives from Tehran to visit his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), are restrained and intriguing. There’s a tension between them, yet in one scene they work together to drive a car home: Marie has a sore wrist, so Ahmad helps with the gears.
Ahmad is in town to finalise a divorce with Marie, who’s living in the Paris suburbs with her two daughters, one a teenager, one younger, from an earlier relationship. She also has a new partner, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his young son is living with them too. Ahmad is mostly unaware of where Marie’s life has gone in recent years, and there’s more for him, and us, to discover as it emerges that Marie’s new relationship with Samir has a tragic footnote: his wife is in a coma after attempting suicide. Although ‘The Past’ is set over only a few days, Ahmad’s gently inquiring presence is a catalyst for several revelations, and it later becomes clear why Marie’s sad-eyed older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is so keen to disappear and join her father in Belgium.
Farhadi is good at upending our initial impressions of characters and situations and infusing his story with a melancholic air and crepuscular light. Yet a surfeit of heavy discussions and shouting in unlikely places undoes so much of his subtler work. Moreover, the film’s increasing reliance on extreme events drowns out the work that Farhadi does to extract meaning from the smallest of gestures and glances.
It’s never entirely clear what Farhadi is trying to say with this film. Perhaps his main interest is responsibility – the taking of it, the lack of it, the search for it, the shirking of it, the claiming of it. He’s at pains to stress how we’re all constrained by our own perspectives on our lives: something he pushes to extremes with the film’s final, terribly overwrought moment. In the end, there’s just so much of ‘The Past’ that doesn’t have that crucial ring of truth to it. Disappointing and underwhelming.
Cast and crew