This scalpel-precise drama picks up almost exactly where writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) left off, with a husband and wife divided by a literal partition, both barely able (if even willing) to communicate. The locale, though, has changed from Tehran to Paris, and the spouses, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo), are about to finalize a split that’s been a long time coming. From the start, there’s trouble: Marie has not booked a hotel for Ahmad, and she plans to have him stay under her own roof with her three children—two daughters from a different father, as well as the stepson of her current beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim).
Scene after scene unfolds with astonishing attention paid to the characters’ subtle shifts of mood, as well as to the respective environments that define them. The way Farhadi gives us a fully formed sense of Marie’s fixer-upper home (not only its physical layout, but the sentiments and sensations that linger at a seemingly microscopic level) is especially skilled. It’s almost impossible to describe the narrative specifics of The Past without making the movie seem ridiculously hammy. Indeed, several twists involving Samir, a dry cleaner with plenty of his own troubles, tip a bit into hoary melodramatics. Yet Farhadi is the kind of artist who can lend even a simpleminded visual metaphor (Ahmad and Marie gaze backward through a car window…into the past!) a cut-to-the-quick profundity. Minor missteps aside, you never feel like you’re in the hands of anyone less than an expert storyteller.
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Cast and crew