Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim
Watch The Past online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Eircom / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
The past can be a right bitch sometimes, especially when everybody is judging an art-house director on previous form. Olivier Hirschbiegel, for example, must look at the reviews for The Invasion and Diana and wonder how he squandered the goodwill earned from Das Experiment and Downfall. Or how about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who still hasn’t explained how he went from The Lives Of Others to The Tourist?
You might have noticed that the above examples both feature directors leaving their homeland following an art-house smash hit – and guess what? That’s exactly what Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi has done here, relocating to France for The Past, a follow-up to his Oscar-winning triumph, A Separation. It must have been with some trepidation that he handed over his boarding pass at Tehran Airport.
The good news: The Past isn’t that bad – and, in many ways, the Franco-Iranian dynamic at the story’s centre represents a knowing dissection of the dangers of getting lost in translation. The less good news: this is still a slight drop in quality from Farhadi’s last film (or its excellent predecessor, About Elly). Then again, this is a film that conspicuously warns about the dangers of getting too hung up on history; maybe it’s our problem rather than Farhadi’s.
The plot revolves around Bérénice Bejo (y’know, her from The Artist) as Marie, who drags her estranged husband Ahmad (Mosaffa) from Tehran to finalise their divorce – but why now? As Ahmad comes home, he finds he has to live not only with his ex, but her two daughters from old relationships, her new fella Samir (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet: see already how everybody has a past that their current project must be judged against?) and his son. Not to mention the shadow cast by Samir’s wife, lying in a coma following a suicide attempt.
These people rattle around the house like a convention of skeletons sharing a cupboard and Farhadi spends a slow, slightly meandering two hours opening various doors to let the bones fall to the floor. If Mike Leigh hadn’t already nabbed the title, this might have been called Secrets and Lies, such is the plot’s emphasis on prodding the characters until they ’fess up to their misdemeanours. While the answers spark the occasional fit of passion (notably from the Cannes Best Actress-winning Bejo, who makes up for Peppy Miller’s silence with some quality shouting), Farhadi’s style is too stiff to merely make the melodrama sing. It’s a soap opera too arty to work itself up into a lather.
What’s left is an intellectually smart but dramatically stifled inquisition into the futility of trying to make up for past actions. Characters continually apologise, usually under duress, but it doesn’t erase the pain and hurt caused to the victim. Neither does telling the truth. In Farhadi’s cold world, nobody really knows anybody else – symbolised by the frequent, symbolic use of glass to partition characters so that they can’t hear each other. It’s a solid enough premise for a story, but it takes everybody a couple of hours to figure out what most of us could have told them at the beginning, namely to stop moping and get on with their lives.
Then again, if this is Farhadi’s philosophy, then at least he won’t waste time crying that he hasn’t made another classic – and hopefully lift the curse of the travelling auteur.