A Review of Asghar Farhadi’s Latest Oscar Nominated Film: The Past (Gozashte/Le Passé)
Released: 19 June, 2013 in Iran.
Unlike his other films, set in Iran, Asghar Farhadi’s latest award winning film (Cannes, The Prize of Ecumenical Jury), Le Passé (The Past) is set in Paris and almost entirely spoken in French. In talking about whether The Past is representative of Iranian cinema, Farhadi explains that the geography of his film does not change who he is as an Iranian filmmaker. This sentiment proves true as The Past maintains many of the stylistic and thematic elements developed in his previous films. Those familiar with Farhadi’s works know that the Past, even though it is not entirely in Persian, is a part of a continued story we have followed with the films: Chaharshanbe Soori, About Ely, A Separation, and now The Past. The filmmaker continues examining the powerful themes of family, divorce, and migration.
When The Past opens, we see a couple communicating through thick glass at the airport. They can’t see each other but they understand the gist of what the other is saying through mouthed words and gestures. However, as in most Farhadi films, the immovable piece of glass serves as an object that prevents them from fully understanding one another. This beginning sequence sets the tone for a series of misunderstandings, hidden feelings, and a “dark secret” that will unravel as the plot unfolds.
Farhadi creates a narrative about the past entirely set in the present. Without obvious flashbacks or even a glimpse into the incident that causes the drama we watch unravel, we enter the lives of four individuals in turmoil. It begins when, after four years of separation and living in Iran, Ahmad (Ali Mostafa) returns from Tehran to Paris to finalize divorce papers with his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) so that she can ostensibly move on and marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), a father with a comatose wife. What appears to be a new beginning actually exposes various elements from the past that weigh heavily on each character.
Marie, at the center of the drama, has been involved with three men in her lifetime. Her family dynamic is a constant reminder of these failed experiences. Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) beautifully expresses deep rebellion towards her mother’s life choices, while coldheartedly rejecting Samir. Ahmad comes to realize that this hostility isn’t simply a rejection of a new family member. It originates in an event before Samir’s wife had fallen into her coma, in the midst of her mother’s affair. Lucie alludes to the cause of Samir’s wife’s suicide attempt, but until the very end we remain unsure of what happened and in what order. Like Farhadi’s last masterpiece, we keep returning to the same seemingly tiny event, but unlike ‘A Separation,’ the event is off-screen and its consequences ripple in the opposite direction, eventually leading up to the final scene. Ahmad, ignorant of the “drama,” finds himself entrapped into the position of moderator. He looks straight into the camera and asks Marie: “Why did you bring me here, now, in the middle of all this drama?” Thus begins a heavy film with not a moment of serenity for its viewers as it ruthlessly untangles each character, forcing them to reveal their true selves.
As soon as Ahmad arrives, we see that he too has lingering threads from his departure four years ago. The more involved Ahmad gets with his past family, the more we see that not only the camera, but the characters are drawn to him. The scene in which he cooks ghormeh sabzi (a traditional Persian dish) for his former stepdaughters, Lucie and Lea (Jeanne Jestin) feels almost too comfortable. It recalls another scene from the past. Again, as Ahmad digs into his suitcase in the garage, we are reminded of a past life with a photograph of the former couple, still curious about what tore them apart. The more Ahmad is invited into the day-to-day life of Marie and her new family, the more we feel Samir falling out of the picture. At one point Marie asks Samir: “Why are you here?” He responds: “What do you mean? Does someone have a problem with me being here?” This direct confrontation further establishes the characters’ disconnect with Samir. But this trajectory would be far too simple. Farhadi shows empathy for his characters, regardless of their actions. Even Samir’s character, that seems somewhat neglected by the camera opens up later in the film. Scene after scene we become more wrapped in what seems to be a complex whirlwind of relationships, lies, and truths rooted in the past.
In the final scene of the film, Farhadi makes a sudden turn and brings us to the hospital room where Samir’s wife lies in a coma. She is an underdeveloped piece in the mosaic of lies, arguments, and failed marriages that Farhadi has intricately put together. It is through Farhadi’s attempt to bring us closer to the couple whose issues remain unattended for most of the film (Samir and his wife), that we fully comprehend his ability to make every moment of life critical. These final moments, among others, shine with subtext. Humanity shows itself as each character grapples with his or her own personal plight, and nostalgia overflows their minds and memories. The film is a series of authentic moments with authentic people that allows us to sense the discrepancy between action and identity. Farhadi trusts his audience. Rather than explaining the lattice of emotions between characters, he allows us to sense them. There are whole worlds of feelings that linger between his characters’ lies, confessions, and even in silences.
The Past opens in select US theaters on December 20th, 2013.
Reviewed by: Donna Honarpisheh
Donna had the opportunity to view The Past in Tehran’s Cinema Mellat.