It takes a true artist to make what, on its face, is a mundane family drama and transform it into something profound. The Past, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his 2011 film A Separation, is quiet, profound, and deeply felt. It deliberately doles out the family secrets, lies, duplicities, miscommunications and fear until the story becomes a universal statement about relationships.
In fact, it’s so specific, at first it seems like a simple tale of soon-to-be ex-spouses finalizing their divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris after four years in Iran to dissolve his marriage to Marie (Bérénice Bejo). They meet at the airport, narrowly missing each other, as Marie tries to signal to Ahmad that she’s there; he’s looking for a missing suitcase and doesn’t see her near baggage claim.
When they finally lock eyes, there’s an uneasy familiarity between them, and soon they’re headed back to the Paris suburbs to her home. It’s there that Ahmad reconnects with Léa (Jeanne Jestin), Marie’s young daughter, and meets Fouad (Elyes Aguis). It turns out Marie’s fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim) lives there, too, and Fouad is Samir’s son.
That’s the first of the secrets in The Past. Ahmad had no idea Marie was going to remarry. He had no idea he’d be staying in her home with them. And he had no idea Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is on the verge of running away. And Marie wants Ahmad to talk to Lucie because they always had a good relationship.
Before long, Ahmad is tangled up in family drama that he wants little part in, but his passivity gives way to reluctant sleuthing. Lucie hates Samir but won’t tell her mother why, and Marie wants Ahmad to find out. Oh, and Samir’s wife is in a coma after a suicide attempt.
The Past has the elements of overblown melodrama, but Farhadi keeps the voices quiet, the emotions simmering, the tension rising until it all comes to a boil. And Farhadi masterfully manages multiple storylines, leaving major characters off screen for 20 minutes at a time without abandoning them or leaving story threads hanging—except one, which he does purposefully and with great skill.
That hanging story thread—Samir travels to the hospital to visit his wife Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska) for what is probably the one-hundredth time, but the first time we see it on camera—is the masterstroke in an expertly directed movie.
After it has emerged that Marie has unfinished business with Ahmad and Samir unfinished business with Céline, Samir walks into Céline’s hospital room. He takes her hand and asks her to squeeze it if she can hear him. As the camera moves in on their hands, we wait and wait and wait, wondering whether there will be a squeeze. Then the credits roll.
There’s a saying in some Twelve Step programs: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Some things we’ll always regret. Sometimes we’re stuck in the past. Farhadi knows that, and has illuminated it in a beautiful way.
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
With Ahmad Ali Mosaffa, Bérénice Bejo, and Tahar Rahim