Film Review: The Past

This brilliant dissection of family dynamics and the tyranny of the past weds honesty with slow-burn drama and peerless acting.

In the opening scenes of The Past, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) meets Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), her soon-to-be ex-husband, at the airport in Paris, speaking and gesturing to him through a thick layer of glass. Director Asghar Farhadi (whose A Separation took the Oscar for best foreign-language film) has contrived a wonderfully apt metaphor for the barriers impeding communication in the complicated family he tracks in his latest film. Marie and company aspire to move forward with their lives, but in this luminous study of human dynamics the past resurges at crucial moments, keeping the characters in stasis. Building in small increments, The Past is more art-house than mainstream, demanding viewer patience and an effort to define intricate ties. Once you buy into Farhadi’s slow-burn method, though, you’ll be hugely rewarded by the film’s cumulative power and his skill at poking around fraught family relations.

Iranian-born Ahmad has traveled to Paris to finalize his divorce with Marie. At first she seems pleased to be putting this chapter behind her—or so she imagines. While still in the car, the tension mounts. For ambiguous reasons, Marie has failed to get Ahmad a hotel room, insisting that he stay at her house (in a rundown part of Paris foreign to tourist images). Nor does she volunteer that her live-in boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) is part of the household, along with his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis).

Fouad may be a bundle of hostility, but the most distressed is Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who acts out by snapping at all and sundry and staying out late. She believes she’s on to a painful secret regarding Samir’s wife, who’s been in a six-month coma following a suicide attempt. The ghostly presence of this comatose wife reaches a chilly hand into the ongoing life of Samir’s new family. Other entanglements abound. Marie is eager to marry Samir—but what emotions still smolder between her and Ahmad? And will Lucie manage to bollix up her mother’s new marriage plans?

For his part, Samir is frozen between wanting to move on with Marie and longing for his wife—or is he stalled by guilt over her suicide attempt? He’s hard at work repainting Marie’s house, but Farhadi cleverly suggests that he can’t erase the presence of her ex. Though Ahmad’s arrival initially triggers more friction, it’s he who emerges as a level-headed peacemaker, perhaps because he has less at stake than the others.

Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, handles all these complex emotions with extraordinary sensitivity, each scene producing new revelations or conflicting views that ratchet up the tension. In the course of the story we learn that Marie has had three heavy relationships in only a few years, which makes more understandable her daughter’s cynicism over a future with handsome Samir.

The cast navigates the story’s emotional minefields with great authority (though Lucie, mired in a toxic mother/daughter bond, wears on the nerves). Bejo does wonders with a character (initially written for Marion Cotillard) who’s a bit of a man-eater, her household a disaster zone as a result of her unsettling ways, more survivor and life force than a likeable woman. Rahim’s Samir is a miniature master class in the art of downplaying. Brooding and laconic, Samir embodies a man entrapped and tormented by the past. Mosaffa as Ahmad radiates a kindness rarely celebrated in film as he struggles to suss out everyone’s point of view. The scenes between him and Samir bristle with testosterone.

Some viewers find the third act overly busy and formulaic, as Farhadi attempts to wrap up the storyline, veering into a police procedural about what triggered the wife’s suicide attempt. Okay, The Past runs a bit long, but everything else about it feels exactly right, and not least the visual metaphor of the closing scene suggesting Samir’s liberation from the past.