Asghar Farhadi is without question one of my favorite working filmmakers. Watching a Farhadi film is unique. He doesn’t make movies intended as escapes. He offers intense examinations filled with truth and reality. Farhadi possesses a sensibility towards the human experience that you rarely sense from other filmmakers. He features a bold and unbridled approach to storytelling that focuses on complex relationships and deep personal narratives.
While his brilliant 2009 picture “About Elly” opened in the United States last year, technically Farhadi hasn’t made a film since 2013’s “The Past”. Like his previous work, “The Past” is a dialogue-rich, plot-driven film focused on the secrets and inner turmoil of its connected characters. The film marked Farhadi’s first cinematic venture outside of Iran. The French language film was shot in Paris but it intentionally strips away any glamorous or romantic view of the city. It is said Farhadi directed through an interpreter since he didn’t speak French. It’s also said that he lived in Paris for two years prior to filming in order to get a better gauge of the French life and the flow of the language.
The story begins with an Iranian man Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving in Paris after a four-year absence to finalize the divorce with his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). Marie has two daughters from a prior marriage including the embittered Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Marie and Lucie have a strained relationship mainly due to Marie’s live-in boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir struggles to balance running a cleaning business with raising his discouraged pre-teen son (played with stinging authenticity by young Elyes Aguis). Even more, Samir’s legal wife has been in a coma for eight months following a failed suicide attempt.
Each of these interconnected characters are effected in different ways by ‘the past’. Each are damaged either by their own poor choices or, in the case of the young children, the choices of others. Each are also carrying their own burdensome secrets which Farhadi reveals in small and strategic doses. This great approach allows for the characters to slowing unfold for us over time. And in doing so, the script (written by Farhadi) causes our sympathies to change as we get more information.
Farhadi’s labyrinthine story gives us a lot to navigate and process. It is rich with heavy dialogue and plot that is constantly building upon itself. It takes no ‘feel good’ shortcuts. The piercing reality of its topics and themes leaves an ever-growing cloud of depression and sadness over the characters. But every ounce of it feels earned and natural. Farhadi has a knack for drawing us in and wrapping us up in his characters, their situations, and their moral complexities.
“The Past” features several other Farhadi signatures. His use of reaction and expression sometimes tell as much as his dialogue. Also there may be no director as adept and effective at shooting in tight, confined spaces. Farhadi forces his characters together and places us among them. He forces them to deal with each other on a close personal and emotional level. It offers up a unique intimacy but also a boiling intensity. So many scenes in the film employ this technique but not without a point or reason.
As with his other films, Farhadi allows “The Past” to show a social conscience that speaks to greater ills in modern society. At the same time this is a very ground-level story between several damaged yet culpable characters and the young innocent casualties caught in the crossfire. In the beginning everyone is a mystery. Over time we learn alarming secrets. We witness emotionally toxic exchanges. We see one bad decision after another. All of it is linked to the brutal consequences of the past. This is the where the film takes us, and it pulls no punches and gives us no passes. I appreciate that.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS