“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley
Following on from his widely successful breakthrough film A Separation (2011) Iranian director Asghar Farhadi relocates to Paris for his latest family drama, The Past. Here, Farhadi compiles a strong cast of current French talent, Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), and places them in Parisian territory as outsiders (much like himself.) As a non-French speaker, Farhadi it would appear, has his work cut out for him directing and writing a French narrative. Through his lead actor, Iranian Ali Mosaffa, who speaks in a broken French, there is a vulnerable distance inevitably created; however through Farhadi’s masterful storytelling ability, he manages to utilise this and express some fairly unifying themes.
The Past follows Ahmad (Mosaffa) as he returns to Paris after a 4 year absence, to sign his divorce papers with his ex-wife Marie (Bejo). While there, Marie asks Ahmad to speak to his step-daughter Lucie, played by a young and particularly impressive Pauline Burlet (La Vie en Rose), who disapproves of her mothers’ upcoming union with Samir (Rahim). This establishing and overlapping of characters is a strong indication of the film’s tone. These four main characters are all connected and yet distant. Ahmad is not the father of Lucie, or her younger sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin), as much as Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) has no relation to Marie, and yet here all these characters are brought together under one roof, for a short time at least.
The film largely feels like one of Ibsen’s dramatic family stage plays, or the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960’s in Britain. The mood can often be oppressive and claustrophobic, with Paris standing in largely as a suburban backdrop rather than a tourist locale, which gives the film a weight of authenticity and naturalism. It is important that Paris remains recognisable but largely absent, as initially at least, we view the narrative through “outsider” Ahmad. He tries to help around the house and crucially understand Lucie’s increasing isolation, he quickly takes on the role of investigator. As he and we learn more about what “the past” actually is here, Ahmad unwittingly becomes a sub-film noir hero, with his past left no clearer than simply being Iranian, Marie’s ex-husband and having previously suffered bouts of depression.
In the centre of all this is Samir’s wife, whose attempted suicide has left her in a comatose state, between life and death, much as the rest of the characters are between the past and the present with their interactions. This is what we, initially through Ahmad, piece together as the narrative moves forward. One of the film’s strengths is that The Past refuses to have a single focaliser and as a result, does not allow the viewer to form assumptions about any of the characters for too long. The film easily could have made Samir the straw-man, a guy who is partly responsible for his wife’s tragic act, yet actually appears to be moving on to a better life with Marie when he should really be wallowing in guilt. However Farhadi instead closes the narrative through his perspective, allowing a good deal of empathy to be shared with all of the main characters here.
As a result, there is an inherent and fascinating tension in The Past which is never truly resolved. Everyone here is somewhat culpable for their actions and simultaneously sympathetic, which makes for a highly believable narrative. It’s fairly modernist in this approach, especially as Farhadi refuses to allow ethnic or class backgrounds to define any of his characters; instead they express themselves largely off-screen (through unseen emails and phone-calls) and dwell largely on their actions in the past.
But while there is much to admire about Farhadi’s film, it’s a tough film to become truly engrossed in. For all his expertly placed motifs, of not allowing a single character to seem entirely blameable, it’s difficult to really forge relationships with these people who are piecing together their miscommunication. While there are some lighter moments earlier on in the film, most notably in Samir and Ahmad’s prolonged awkward silence, it’s suffocatingly serious tone for 2 hours and 10 minutes makes it hard to really ever enjoy. While it’s intriguing to learn about the past of this dysfunctional family, the plot turns exist to the point of distraction; this softens its intended climax somewhat.
Ultimately, for all it’s excellent performances, layered-narrative and stage-play atmosphere, the shared empathy across the board prevents us from making a meaningful connection. For all it’s achievements The Past suffers from its own accomplishments as an excellent modernist morality play. It is something to be seen, but not really felt.