Any movie following the sublime A Separation comes with impossible to meet expectations, and Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is indeed no match for his previous picture. It’s much closer in quality to Farhadi’s About Elly from 2009, sharing its strengths and weaknesses.
In The Past, Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris in October to finalize his divorce with the French Marie (Bérénice Bejo of The Artist fame). Ahmad had left 4 years prior for undisclosed reasons and why they split is unclear other than Marie claiming Ahmad is unreliable. From Ahmad’s present actions, that would seem to be anything but the case. Ahmad is a good cook and listener. He’s patient, generous, compassionate, understanding, and always gives everyone else the benefit of the doubt. Marie is going through a rough period with her rebellious teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) from a previous relationship. Lucie and Ahmad get along though so Marie wants him to talk to her to see what’s wrong.
Only belatedly does Marie reveal to Ahmad that she’s living with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), the owner of a dry cleaning store, and Samir’s young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) with whom Marie is also experiencing a lot of problems. Marie, a pharmacist, met Samir when he came to collect medicines for his wife Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), who suffered depression and is now in a coma after a suicide attempt. At first the tawdriness of this affair seems to be the root cause of Lucie’s issues with Marie, but then revelation after revelation from, well, the past surface that make what’s actually going on more complicated.
The Past suffers from a similar flaw in About Elly and perhaps something in Farhadi’s literary temperament in general – he doesn’t know when to stop making his story more convoluted. Eventually it becomes this Rube Goldberg contraption of events where the cause and effect is continually misconstrued and each answer begets a new question. At one point a doctor makes the assessment, “In these cases, you can never be sure,” and it is a too apt description of the movie which situationally has turned into a soap opera nearing the preposterous.
Farhadi still manages to make it work because, as with all of his films, his actors rise to the occasion. Mosaffa, Bejo, Rahim, and Burlet all bring nuance and vulnerability to their roles. As usual, Farhadi also fills the film with vivid incidental details – Marie smoking when she’s stressed, a café owner who hasn’t seen Lucie in years mixing her up with Lucie’s younger sister Lea, Ahmad’s playfulness with the children. And The Past is thematically strong in its depiction of how adult relationships entwine children as each take out their pent-up emotional frustrations out on the other. The adults try to rein in their chaotic lives by exerting power over their children to retain some semblance of control. Only any short-term illusion of being in charge is at the cost of long-term trust and fidelity. The Past stands as a resonate warning to this vicious cycle.