REVIEW: “Le Passé” (“The Past”)

PAST poster

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.



REVIEW: “About Elly”

ELLY poster

It took five years but finally the US distribution rights for Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly” were acquired bringing the highly acclaimed 2009 film to American theaters in 2015. These distribution wranglings and roadblocks are frustrating to say the least especially in this case. “About Elly” has received a ton of critical praise and has won numerous notable awards, yet it has lingered out of reach of many anxious cinephiles.

Farhadi, who I will go ahead and call one of the best international filmmakers going, has actually made two films since the release of “About Elly”, one being his searing Oscar-winning drama “A Separation”. You can see some of the same artistic strokes being used in both movies and the Iranian filmmaker’s soulful human explorations and subtle societal critiques are fundamental components to each. But at the same time “About Elly” differentiates itself in a variety of interesting ways while still maintaining Farhadi’s impeccable knack for mesmerizing and relevant storytelling.


One such difference can be found in the openings. “A Separation” begins with a tense and solemn meeting with a family court judge. A husband and wife are preparing to end 14 years of marriage. Contrast that with the opening of “About Elly”. The first scene shows friends playfully yelling out their car windows while driving through a highway tunnel. The group is heading to the Caspian Sea for fun-filled three-day vacation. Two drastically different scenarios yet over time Farhadi’s distinct signature can be seen on both.

With “About Elly” it’s definitely a case of ‘the less you know the better’. The film sets itself up by offering us introductions to the characters and showing their whimsical enthusiasm. After all, they’re on vacation. Everyone seems excited yet there is something different about Elly (eloquently played by Taraneh Alidoosti). She feels like a bit of an outsider – apprehensive and reserved. Turns out Elly was invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) in hopes that she would hit it off with recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini).

In a cagey bit of foreshadowing the group must navigate a mishap with their reservations which threatens to derail their vacation. In this brief sequence we get a handful of subtle clues which play into how things unfold. Things finally get back on track and they land a place to stay at a seaside villa. They get settled in, Elly remains a bit of a mystery, and everyone starts to have a good time. That is until a key moment sends Farhadi’s story spinning and his characters along with their relationships are seen under a new light.


There is a biting naturalistic harmony to Farhadi’s storytelling that uses plot twists and character complexities like pieces to an elaborate moral puzzle. At the same time, with every layer of the story that is peeled away we gain new insights into who these people are while also being challenged by various social critiques. Farhadi is never heavy-handed and he’s never preachy to the detriment of the story he’s telling.

Watching “About Elly” is a near hypnotic experience whether it’s the fascinating mystery akin to Antonioni’s brilliant “L’Avventura” or the stimulating character study/morality play that puts each character under a microscope. As with his previous work, Asghar Farhadi injects this film with such authenticity and truth. Not a single character feels fake. Not a single emotion feels false. Not a single plot point feels contrived. It’s truth that permeates this entire picture which is a little ironic. In the film it’s the truth that proves to be the hardest thing for the characters to embrace. Not so for Farhadi.


TEST star