In an earlier Asghar Farhadi film, "About Elly," a divorcing character says: "A bitter end is much better than a bitterness without ending." Neither option provides much ease. In the right hands, however, both yield infinite dramatic riches.
Writer-director Farhadi's new film is "The Past." It has the unenviable position of following the deserved global rapture that greeted his previous work, "A Separation," two years ago. What can a filmmaker do after he comes up with a modern masterwork? He can only continue to explore. His latest is very good.
Farhadi shot "The Past" in Paris, his first project outside his native Iran. While his story returns to the themes of relational deception and moral coin-tosses he has addressed before, this time there is the added layer of cultural dislocation. The setup is simple. Four years prior to the action of the film, a soft-spoken Iranian man, Ahmad, played by Ali Mosaffa, left his French wife, Marie, played by Berenice Bejo, for a visit to his homeland. He never returned.
Marie, who works in a pharmacy, now shares a small house in the working-class northeastern Paris suburb of Sevran with her new lover, Samir, played by Tahar Rahim. He has a preteen son (Elyes Aguis, heartbreaking in the role) from his marriage. Samir's wife lies in a coma. We learn early on that she attempted suicide. The reasons for that make up much of "The Past."
Marie has two daughters from a previous relationship, the older of whom (Pauline Burlet) steers clear of her mother's sullen new boyfriend. After a four-year absence, Marie's ex returns from Tehran to Paris to settle their divorce and move on. But they cannot move on. Samir remains stuck, guiltily, between the near-lifeless wife we see only in the final scene and the vibrant but unsteady Marie. Ahmad, the returning Iranian, tried making a living (his profession is unspecified, though early drafts of the script stated he was a filmmaker) in a new country, with limited success. Everyone has their reasons for doing what they do, and concealing what they conceal.
It's a sad and beautiful picture, photographed with supple mastery by cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, who catches the light in Marie's apartment, the pharmacy, Samir's dry-cleaning business, the unglamorous streets of Paris just so, without romanticism but with expressive loveliness. As the motivations for the wife's suicide attempt are peeled back, layer by layer, "The Past" becomes a meditation on the ways we all struggle to shed our old skins.
Bejo, Rahim and Mosaffa are all excellent, as are the young actors Burlet and Aguis. American audiences know Bejo (in a role originally earmarked for Marion Cotillard) primarily from her Oscar-nominated turn as Peppy Miller in "The Artist." Her natural ebullience is tamped down but good in "The Past." Her performance never asks for pity or sympathy, only understanding. Now and then, as in "A Separation," you can feel Farhadi subtly stacking the deck in favor of his calmer, more rational male characters. But even so this is nuanced work, as written and as brought to shadowy life by the cast.
The limitation of "The Past" is purely expositional. In "A Separation," Farhadi's intricate plotting maintained a grip of suspense throughout. Here, there's a more studied air to the developments and secret-spilling, pushing things closer to Henrik Ibsen//?// — not a bad neighborhood, to be sure — than to fluid, intimate cinema.
The miracle is that even with a bit of dramaturgical clunkiness "The Past" is fluid, intimate cinema. Few directors today can shoot in such tightly confined spaces, with such a determined control over his actors' movements, and make the drama work so well. The final seconds of "The Past" (a happy accident, according to one of the performers) show the audience one truth, while the character on screen remains in the dark. Farhadi is obsessed with the high cost of keeping a secret. "The Past" leaves all of its characters suspended, tantalizingly, in an emotional limbo, which not even the truth can dispel.
"The Past" - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)
Running time: 2:10; in French and Persian with English subtitles