Sydney Film Festival – The Past review

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By Simon Miraudo
June 16, 2013

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is taking his victory lap. He’s earned it. After winning the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar for the universally-adored crossover hit A Separation, he’s wisely replicated the formula for his follow-up, The Past. It similarly deals with a divorce, also amongst hugely reasonable parties. There are revelations, massive and minor. Children get caught in the crossfire. The final shot lingers, and devastates. If it ain’t broke… Yet, The Past never feels formulaic. This isn’t the work of a successful filmmaker resting on his laurels. Farhadi has simply magicked up a particular way of telling small stories that reverberate in massive ways. No one does it like he does it. Let’s hope he never stops.

The movie opens with Frenchwoman Marie (Bérénice Bejo) picking up her estranged husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) from the airport. He’s in from Tehran to attend their divorce hearing, and to end their marriage on good terms. Marie wants to make it official so she can tie the knot with drycleaner Samir (Tahar Rahim). He and his son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), have already moved in with Marie and her two children to a previous husband, young Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and rebellious teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Ahmad reluctantly agrees to stay with them, rather than at a hotel, at Marie’s request. It’s a full house, and not at all like the TV show Full House.

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In A Separation, tensions simmered until a little white lie got blown out of proportion, resulting in a series of big, black lies that left everyone miserable. The Past, instead, explores the sometimes gargantuan cost of truth-telling. Over the course of the picture, Ahmad slowly gathers information regarding Marie and Samir’s courtship, and how it very directly involved Samir’s depressed wife finding herself in a coma. Revelatory information is slowly doled out as it would be in a crime procedural, but it never feels as if pertinent facts are being withheld from us simply because the script dictates they must. Once again, Farhadi lulls us into a scenario where someone can make a minor adjustment to their earlier claims, and it can induce an audible gasp. When your palms begin to sweat during a debate over who is responsible for not properly dry-cleaning a dress, it becomes obvious that you are being manipulated – in the good way – by one of the best working directors.

The female characters have been written slightly more hysterically than they were in A Separation, which featured more even-keeled participants. Perhaps it is just in contrast to Ahmad’s calm, rational demeanour, which, in the face of increasing drama becomes something of a running joke. Nonetheless, the performances are astute and delicate. The Past is also a shrewd and complex love story. We’re told love conquers all, except when it doesn’t, and here Farhadi presents us with a series of good people who, because of bad timing, bad luck, and the occasional bad choice, are denied their greatest desire. Even for those who do find their way to one another, it comes at such a grave cost. The question becomes: is it worth it? Is the cost of your personal happiness enough to justify another’s misery? Farhadi is one of the great working humanists. Lately, only his films have explored such weighty, relatable themes in a manner that is compelling, amusing, and likely enduring. Saying it’s not a better work than A Separation serves only to compliment A Separation. The Past is note-perfect.

4.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

The Past plays the Sydney Film Festival June 16.

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