POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 21, 2014
The modest, run-down home at the center of "The Past" is filled with rooms that — much like the characters who are busily, sometimes leisurely passing through them — somehow feel cut off from one another. Set in a characterless Paris suburb that's as physically and psychically distant from the City of Light as the moon, the movie is both a family melodrama and a relationship story, which perhaps inevitably means it's about love and loyalty, secrets and lies, and how the past, never being dead, just hovers around waiting to smack us upside the head. All this also makes it something of a haunted house movie, except that its characters are plagued by ghosts of their own design.
Iranian writer and director Asghar Farhadi has been down this path before, notably with his art-house favorite "A Separation." In that 2011 melodrama, the acrimony between an unhappily married husband and wife who, like shifting tectonic plates, create boundaries, cracks and fissures in their lives and those of everyone around them, including their emotionally rent daughter and an ailing relative. There are several more bad relationships in "The Past," which opens in a French airport with Marie (Bérénice Bejo) greeting her estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who's arrived from Iran. She's asked him to return so they can divorce. From both the warmth and the awkwardness of their darting embrace — their bodies no longer intuitively fit together — it's clear they're not done working things through.
For much of "The Past" that's precisely what they do, although, as in "A Separation," the fractured central relationship is part of a much larger chain of minor and major life dramas, which here include an illicit affair, traumatized children and a comatose patient. Farhadi has a nice, deliberate sense of narrative timing and an art-film director's resistance to exposition. His characters talk a great deal, but the full meaning of their words isn't always readily apparent, at least at first. In the opening scene at the airport, Marie calls out to Ahmad, who can't hear her because they're separated by glass. It's a funny bit because it plays like a nod to Bejo's star turn in the silent film "The Artist," but it also represents the couple's essential divide.
MARIE and Ahmad are scarcely out of the airport before they revert to relationship form, sniping at each other like the unhappy couple they are. Their fights and their movements are carefully choreographed: She takes the wheel first and, in an exchange that's characteristic of Farhadi's oblique approach and increasingly telegraphed dialogue, asks Ahmad if she has enough room to back out. She does, but almost as soon as she goes in reverse, they're nearly hit by a passing car. "What are you doing?" Ahmad demands, although the same question could be asked of him. She may have asked the wrong question. (Is it safe?) But he also didn't volunteer the right answer. (Watch out!) After they stop to pick up one of her daughters (from an earlier marriage), Ahmad takes over the driving.
And so it goes, as Marie and Ahmad play their respective parts, airing old grievances and fresh complaints. Yet even while Farhadi forces you to read between the lines, to parse every aside and scrutinize each sigh, he's busily loading the movie with plot. Marie turns out to be anxious for a divorce because she's taken up with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who's moved into her house with his son, a heartbreaker, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). For Marie's youngest daughter, Lia (Jeanne Jestin), these living arrangements have meant a new playmate in Fouad, but for Marie's eldest, a teenage beauty and pouter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), the situation is inexplicably intolerable. Samir, meanwhile, has a wife who, as this world turns ever faster, is languishing in a coma.
The narrative complications can be distracting, at times exasperating, but they're finally irrelevant because Farhadi's filmmaking is so fluid, and the performers — Bejo in particular — are so attractive. The story is nearly obscured by its schematic design (everyone doesn't just have his or her reasons; he or she is also guilty), but there are mysteries, surprises and complexities, notably in the representation of the children and in Bejo's thorny, layered performance with its strata of neediness, resentment and hope. As in "A Separation," Farhadi shows a masterly gift for moving his characters and camera through rooms that — with a raised voice, a violent exit — become stages in a ferocious domestic drama. But here, keep your eye on the littlest players, the small ones trembling in the wings.
Review by Manohla Dargis, New York Times