By Joan Ellis
“The Past” is a good story beautifully told.
It is a film for people who have enough life experience and patience to watch a family drama unfold gradually, as if in real time. In the hands of director Asghar Farhadi, it packs the power of a master storyteller.
Mr. Farhadi, who speaks no French, directed the film through a translator. And so we have a film set in France, written in French, and directed by the gifted Iranian director who created the memorable “A Separation.”
In the opening scenes we are given the picture of a family in the present moment. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) left his wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo), and their daughters, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin), to return to his homeland several years ago. Marie has asked him to return to France in order to appear in court to sign divorce papers so she can marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), who is now sharing her house along with Lucie and Lea. Samir, whose wife lies in a coma in the hospital, is the father of Fouad (an extraordinary Elyes Aquis). All six of them are living in the same small, quite shabby house.
And so surfaces our need for patience and understanding. We recognize immediately the recipe for disaster, but director Farhadi has no simple plan in mind. He reveals the family secrets slowly, along with the explosive reactions of various family members, until we are watching a complicated story of a family fractured by smoldering resentments.
The family members do their best to accept a tough situation, but as the revelations trigger emotions, even the best intentions melt.
This is a story propelled not by action but by circumstance. There are no villains here, just a family dealing with a situation. The fine actors deal beautifully with the challenges thrown their way. Each of them has a major scene along with the challenge of conveying their emotions quietly when others are center stage.
Ali Mosaffa gives an especially tender performance as he tries gently to smooth the waters. Both he and Tahar Rahim show exceptional perception in helping the children. Pauline Burlet’s troubled teenager hides the reasons for her anger for just so long before dropping a bombshell. It is left to Berenice Bejo to be the central explosive focus in an impossible situation.
In the absence of ordinary feelings of hate or rage, the players are propelled by the more complicated emotions of choice and guilt that they direct inward. As so often happens in life, regret and guilt add up to remorse and that is exactly why we find ourselves caught in constantly shifting sympathies.
The multilayered script unveils its surprises in small shots that deepen the family predicament. With the direction and acting generating genuine suspense, you will wonder until the last frame how resolution can possibly come from this tangle of emotions.
My advice is this: Listen very closely; you’ll be rewarded.
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