“I’m nobody in this story.” By the time Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa, consistently solid throughout the film) utters that comment halfway through Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, it’s far too late in the narrative and too deep into the story to hold much water. After all, Ahmed is not a nobody in the A Separation director’s latest tale of domestic disruptions, and neither is the woman who lies in a coma many miles away, or the man who has started a new life somewhere in Brussels, or any number of other nameless participants in the film’s various characters’ pasts that we never meet. It’s called The Past for a reason, not The Future or The Present, but it might as well be called The Past People in Our Lives We Can’t Forget and Move Away From and This is The Result of All of That Stuff. It’s certainly not as snappy, however.
While the basic plotline of The Past sounds salacious – a man returns after many years to divorce a wife who already has a new husband lined up and he discovers many secrets along the way – it’s surprisingly tame in execution. The film could easily be tailored to fit the needs of an American studio, with Ahmed starring as the out-of-town-ex who transforms a mixed family with his charm, level thinking, and delicious cooking (think Uncle Buck with more complicated relationships). At least, that’s what happens for the first half of the movie, with Ahmed playing unexpected peacekeeper between his soon-to-be-ex-wife Marie-Anne (Berenice Bejo, still stunning despite clear attempts to conceal her good looks), her new beau Samir (Tahar Rahim), his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), and her two daughters he once helped raise (Jeanne Jestin as young Lea and a jaw-dropping Pauline Burlet as teen Lucie). But as secrets (and, oh, there are secrets!) begin to reveal themselves and a bit of a mystery starts to unfold (very, very slowly), it becomes clear that even Ahmed can’t change things and that Lucie’s angst isn’t just the common teenage kind.
Marie-Anne’s house is in the middle of massive disarray and transition (we don’t need to dwell on how the house itself is half-painted with a new color or that it’s located within spitting distance of a train station, though those elements do put quite a fine point on what Farhadi is conveying here), and the introduction of Ahmed into the mix only fuels more upheaval. There is, however, an inevitability to the proceedings, particularly thanks to Marie-Anne’s apparently common practice of going through men with alarming regularity (a resigned Lucie says that her mother has changed partners three times since she was born). There is also the problem of that pesky past (even of the recent kind) that refuses to stay buried, no matter how much everyone wants to look forward (or how long it takes to reveal itself).
Bejo breathes intense life into the complicated and mercurial Marie-Anne, and it’s a joy to watch her even as she pulls her life and loved ones apart by the seams. Rahim works on the periphery for most of the film, before taking center stage during the film’s final third, a complicated and somewhat frustrating last act that his performance nearly saves on its own. It is Burlet, however, that breaks out in The Past, with her Lucie providing the most breathtaking performance of the entire film. A combination of surly teenager and repentant almost-adult, she’s the center and the star of The Past, and we should hope Burlet will continue her work far into the future (sorry, had to do it).
While The Past isn’t as immaculately put together and impeccably emotional as last year’s Oscar winning A Separation, the two films clearly come from the same mold and maker. Farhadi knows how to make a domestic drama, complete with fleshed-out characters, essential old houses and apartments to rattle around in, and screaming matches to spare, and if that’s how the way he wants to do it, that’s a film future worth looking forward to.
The Upside: A breakout performance from Pauline Burlet, an admirable dramatic turn from Berenice Bejo, characteristically even-handed direction from Farhadi.
The Downside: While not necessarily a slow burn, Farhadi takes far too long to get to the meat of the “mystery” at the center of the film, and the last act feels lousy with misdirection and out-of-nowhere revelations starring minor characters.
On the Side: Burlet’s uncanny resemblance to Marion Cotillard isn’t just a funny coincidence – Burlet played a young Edith Piaf in the Cotillard-starring La Vie en Rose and Cotillard was even originally set for Bejo’s role, but had to drop out when her Rust and Bone festival schedule conflicted. (This piece of trivia so rocked me that I actually gasped aloud when I read it.)