The Past

The truest eye

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Past makes conventional movies feel artificial. Watching the characters interact in this movie feels like “Here is real life,” and real life just happens to be strangely compelling. There is no music on the soundtrack, and there are no flashbacks or showy devices. People just seem to be talking and living, but always, always, the story is pushing forward.

See it once, and you will thoroughly enjoy it, at least as much as you can enjoy watching people getting ripped to pieces emotionally. But see it twice, and you might enjoy it even more, or at least be able to appreciate the seamless architecture that director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) has put into place. The story is rich and involves the slow revelation of an event in the recent past. But at the start of the film, no one has the full story, though they all think they do.

The Past is technically from Iran—Iran entered it into the Oscar competition—but it will be received by most American audiences as a French film. It’s set in Paris; most of the dialogue is in French, and the female lead is a French film star, Berenice Bejo. Best known in the United States as the happy-go-lucky actress in The Artist and in France for light comedies, here she plays a woman coming apart. She is about to divorce a man she still loves and is involved with a married man whose wife has been in a coma for eight months.

Under the surface of normality, life is exploding—or perhaps Farhadi is saying that this is normal, that people, even those of reasonable goodwill, have a gift for messing up their lives. At the start of the film, Marie (Bejo) picks up her estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport. He left her four years earlier to move back to Iran, and now he’s in town to sign their divorce papers.

Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Ahmad, who stays at Marie’s house (at her insistence) and observes the life of the family. Marie has a new man, Samir, played by Tahar Rahim (The Prophet), who lives there, along with his confused and troubled little boy. Marie also has two daughters by yet another man. One daughter is a little girl, the other a 16-year-old, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is anguished and resentful at her mother’s new relationship.

No one is a villain, yet everyone is complicit. Ahmad, the most immediately sympathetic character—he is thoughtful and decent, and he has a good way with the kids—might be responsible for the whole mess, in that he left Marie in the first place. Samir has had the burden of a depressive (now comatose) suicidal wife, but he also cheated on her. Marie’s actions are understandable, but she is selfish, unreasoning, out of control and not the best mother. She’s charming for 10 minutes, but after awhile Ahmad’s decision to flee to Tehran seems like a sensible life choice. Even Lucie, a seeming victim of her mother’s carelessness, isn’t entirely innocent.

No one’s bad, no one’s good, and everyone has their reasons. That’s a very French formula, so Farhadi picked the right country for his movie.

The performances are not like performances, in that the actors don’t do the usual things—things you don’t even notice until they’re not there. As Marie, Bejo is desperate and fierce, with occasional glimmers of the vivacious woman Marie might have been 10 years ago. But the one thing Bejo doesn’t do is ask us to like her. She doesn’t ask for the obligatory movie-star scene in which she explains herself. She remains as people do in life, very present and yet mysterious.

The same could be said for Mosaffa as Ahmad. We see him, and we like him, but we never know his full story. We never know the turmoil behind the face he shows the world. There are no announcements of inner depths. As a director, Farhadi suggests depths by rigorously conveying the surface of things—the glances, the hands touching, the private moments. He has the simplest of camera styles. He puts the camera on whatever is the truest thing happening.

But Farhadi can only do that because he knows what the truest thing is—at every moment. Thanks to him, so do we.

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