Like Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation (2011), Le passé (The Past) is a superb feat of narrative construction and mise en scène, keeping three to four characters at the centre of attention, and balancing their motives and desires with careful equanimity. The problem is that there’s little more to recommend the film than this cleverness, since none of the characters are especially interesting or likable, and the third act develops into a twist-too-far detective story, before ending on a note that, albeit presumably not deliberate, is a thudding sequel set-up, and for a far more lively film to boot.
Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come back to France to sign divorce papers for Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who, unbeknownst to him, is about to get married to Samir (Tahar Rahim). The film’s first two thirds are a negotiation of this territory and the frictions it creates with Marie’s two daughters and Samir’s young son (Elys Aguis, giving the film’s best performance). Ahmad proves himself too good to be true, taking Marie’s thoughtlessness, withholding, and perpetual irritability on the chin, calming the children, dispensing wisdom all round, and even getting on civilly with Samir. Meanwhile, Marie is insufferably selfish, bratty, and generally unpleasant to be around, and Samir displays little more character than his over-the-top teary eyes brought on by a paint allergy.
This is a dinner party movie par excellence for those who go to the cinema maybe every couple of months, ready to prompt discussions of ethics and motivation and inferred emotion, comments like “wasn’t it a shock when..”, with whom does one most sympathize etc. There is nothing here of substance (concerned as it exclusively is with first-world problems). Hints that feelings from the marriage may still exist are not exploited; the new relationship has no depth at all; the youngest daughter may as well not be in the film for all the relevance she has; and one cannot fathom why anyone puts up with Marie (to be fair we are told she has a history of men leaving her).
The elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is the most interesting character not in a coma, and does the most interesting thing in the film (before it starts, in fact) but even she is a standard-issue sulky teen. This is a film where nothing is at stake: for the audience, because it is hard to care; for the characters because all they are trying to do is salve their own consciences. The final act question of who is to blame for a terrible act (again, prior to the film’s timeframe) is vaguely answered as “everyone” by the multiple revelations. All except goody-two-shoes Ahmad, who’s going to have to come back for the sequel and sort everything out again.
AFI FEST festival film page: The Past
Country: France, Iran, Italy
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Cinematographer: Mahmoud Kalari
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Production Designer: Claude Lenoir
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karmi, Valeria Cavalli