by Philip Price
I am always hesitant to approach foreign films on the idea of not being aware of the culture in which they take place and therefore being unable to relate to the situations these films might present. I have always felt this way yet always known the only way to combat such tendencies is to better acquaint myself with more foreign films. I try to do so from time to time and when I heard Asghar Farhadi's much acclaimed follow-up to 2011's “A Separation” would finally be making it to my neck of the woods I was more than anxious to see what the director had crafted this time around. I remember being in awe of how well Farhadi's previous film was able to so easily capture and wrap me up in the simple issues of the family dynamic that was taking place in front of us and that the smallest of details, of changes in routine would be the event that spurned the main conflict the film was dissecting. It was such a simplistic, yet completely intriguing set-up that I wondered why films and namely those from my own country did not use this technique more often. Something such as “The Past” is an easy film to look at and see its obvious virtues, but these are only obvious because Farhadi has no doubt worked extremely hard to capture the naturalistic tone and conversation between these characters that allow it to feel effortless, as if we were simply observing the actions of these real human beings rather than the fact they were conjured up and plotted out by a singular source. When taking the film on from this perspective it is even easier to see the level of craft and skill involved in what the final version of this film presents and how well the characters have been realized because, as it is staged, we peel back the layers of who these average-seeming individuals are and the baggage they carry with them. It is truly a testament to the idea that each of us carry our own, interesting stories and that we all have something to tell though wouldn't want to necessarily share. The characters of “The Past” are that of people we could live next door to (despite the fact this takes place in France with influences from Iran) and their issues are those common enough to buy into the drama while complicated enough one wouldn't wish them on another. Through this power of simplistic, relatable narrative Farhadi has mastered the character drama.
We are introduced to Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) as Marie picks Ahmad up from the airport. It is at first unclear what their connection to one another is and what their relationship hinges on, but we feel the tension between them immediately, the uneasiness of this reunion because it is clearly that. The exchanges of dialogue hint at a history with one another while the silence given between the dialogue that only stands as a way to ease the pain of the point of the reunion gives us more as portrayed by both Bejo and Mosaffa. They talk of getting older, of bad habits and the breakdown of what was once their younger bodies. They come to the topic of children though it is unclear whether they share them or if they come from different relationships explored through the years. The two individuals don't seem to be at a point where life has taken too grand a toll on their physical appearance yet it is clear that time is moving in. I can only assume Farhadi chose his actors as much for their ability to convey the right emotions and elicit the correct reactions as he did for their appearance. Mosaffa's hair is beginning to thin, his belly only slightly sticking out making his naturally thin frame cry out with the fact he has begun not to care as much. Bejo's Marie has always been the pretty one, the privileged even; always getting as she desires, but always being in such a rush to satisfy these urges, these gaps that despite the fact she gets what she wants it usually doesn't work out. We come to learn Marie's two children, Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), do not belong to Ahmad but that he must have married their mother soon after the birth of Léa for they both know him well and show a larger amount of affection towards him than initially expected. While Lucie is at the stage of her adolescence where she has come to resent her mother it seems her mother has given her good reason as not only do Léa and Lucie reside with her, but also a new lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad has come back to France to finalize his divorce with Marie and on the surface it seems this is to allow her and Samir's new relationship to grow, but there is more to the story than that and each of these characters play a very specific role in determining the outcome of this convoluted mess of a situation they find themselves in.
Part of the experience that makes watching “The Past” so engaging is not knowing exactly what the story is or where it might go before entering the theater. I had no pre-conceived notion of what I was getting myself into or what the theme or point of the film might be, but in allowing that to happen I also allowed myself to come to know these characters as naturally as they were written. As with Marie and Ahmad, Samir has been cast as a younger, more solid body but someone whose eyes and hair, whose facial features are sullen by the weight of depression and responsibility. Rahim exudes a charm that mirrors that of Ahmad's as well as his directness, but there is a certain amount of regression in the choosing of him as the next suitor as well. The audience can feel the emotion he has pent up, the confusion with which he operates in this new role as an adult figure to two younger girls, almost strangers, while wanting to care only for his one true offspring and making sure that he grows up to be the best version of a person Samir can imagine. He enjoys the company of Marie and likes that she is pretty and probably showed interest in him in the first place, but he doesn't know what to do with it other than follow his carnal instincts. He certainly doesn't seem to want to take on the responsibility that comes with engaging in a full relationship with her, yet this is where he finds himself. These kind of internal struggles are not said explicitly, yet they are implied by the actions he takes in the situations he finds himself in and Rahim conveys this stress, this hassle, this conflict of true desires and instant gratifications with pure skill giving the most affecting of the leading performances that amounts to a final shot that doesn't need dialogue to make its point, but in the silence of the moment and the stillness of the simple, intimate action gives the audience the tip over the edge of the cliff that, for me, certified what an honest impact the film had on me. It is difficult to discuss this without going into greater detail about the plot points of this very basic human drama, but to say that we can all be moved by the same things makes us one and that the final moment is conveyed in no specific language speaks across the barriers and with immense volume.
There is always a prejudice against foreign films because they come with the idea of having to read through a movie rather than simply sitting back and enjoying it and I would be lying if I said this didn't cause me to avoid a few of them over the past few years. I bring this up because to the point of it sometimes feeling like a chore in something such as “The Past,” where dialogue is everything, the text at the bottom of the screen almost serves as a drug; the audience always wanting more, hanging on to every word waiting to see what comes next and where those words will take us. As far as where the film takes its audience, it is to that of unexpected not always explained places. It is almost deceptive in its simplistic approach to how we think the story might play out. We don't imagine things spiraling out of control or at least becoming as complicated as life tends to be to a point that we the viewer are forced to assess our own lives, choices and what has brought us to our current state and whether we are happy and satisfied to be there or not. Again, it is almost striking at times how familiar this all feels while clearly feeling a distance within the culture the film is surrounded and inhabited by. I've always wondered what people might find so appealing about a foreign film that it is able to transcend the aforementioned barriers and allow so many people in other parts of the world to find it equally engaging. The answer, as presented by Farhadi in both “The Past” and “A Separation,” is that it addresses universal issues of family; divorce, how a marriage might dissolve and how moving on can be both freeing to some and nothing but the burden of horrible change to other factors involved. It all relies on the role you play in these types of situations and the fact every person out there has likely played many of these roles throughout their lives only helps them to understand the perspectives from which Farhadi is able to tackle these simplistically complex situations. It takes on so much more than that of an inclusive family drama trapped in their own little world though as the director is sure to allow the world continuing to move around his characters to play a part in the fact that time stops for no one and no matter the decisions made in relation to these current circumstances there is always a future for you out there, but you have a hand in determining what that might be today. It is a most engaging film and deserves to be seen no matter if you find reading subtitles a burden or not.