Had Judge Michael Nazarewycz not reviewed this film, he would have wanted The Past as a present.
I didn't just watch The Past, I discovered it.
I never got around to watching 2011's A Separation, writer/director Asghar Farhadi's much heralded Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner. So when the opportunity arose to review this film (his next effort), I jumped at the chance to understand what kind of creative force was working at the keyboard and behind the camera.
Facts of the Case
Marie (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa, Leila) are estranged spouses. Ahmad returns from Iran to France, where Marie lives, to finalize their divorce. When he gets there, he learns that Marie is living with Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet) and Samir's young son, as well as with her own two children from a relationship previous to Ahmad.
As Ahmad tries to make the best of his sometimes uncomfortable visit, he finds himself in the middle of several tumultuous situations. The first is a growing disconnect between Marie and her teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet, La Vie en Rose). Another is the tension that his own presence creates between Marie and Samir. A third is something of a scandal involving Samir's employee. There is also a significant impact that all of this drama has on the two young children in the picture, Marie's other daughter Léa (Jeanne Jestin, La Vie Domestique) and Samir's young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis in his screen debut). As the days pass, more about the lives of these people are revealed, and with considerable consequences.
Writing a summary for The Past is an exercise in deciding exactly how much plot to reveal. I went with not much. With so many other dramas, key details are usually front-loaded, and the reaction to those details make up the rest of the film, with the occasional twist. Not so here. Here, every scene brings with it the potential for discovery. While there are moments that have a greater impact than others, there are no real twists, per se—only unexpected turns. This makes gradual discovery—and there are discoveries up to and including the final scene—a key to the film's success.
What makes this ongoing discovery of information and secrets and details of these things that happened in, well, in the past, so key is how organically, how naturally, they are revealed. There are never any blatant "A-ha!" moments, even when "A-ha!"-grade moments happen. The film is a touching story with big moments built in, not big moments with a touching story built around them. Farhadi's style is considerably dramatic but as far from melodramatic as you can get. Even intense emotional outbursts are perfectly measured; scenes are never showy or contrived. Scenery is never chewed. The director's touch is amazing.
His touch with actors is just as formidable and the other key to the film's success. Each actor's character has some burden to bear. For Ahmad, it's his failed marriage and some things he is roped into while in France. For Marie, it's her failed marriage and her failing relationship with her daughter and some other things that I can't reveal here. For Samir, it's some things I can't get into here, plus some other things I can't get into here, plus his unease around Ahmad, as well as his need to manage his life with his young son.
Ah, the young son. This is Farhadi's masterstroke: his way with child actors, particularly his young rookie. Elyes Aguis is an adorable-looking kid who is neither cutesy nor evil. He is a young boy whose life is in considerable upheaval and he acts out appropriately. By appropriately, I mean with great genuineness; I never once thought he was being bratty or over-the-top. It's a two-dimensional task that this youngster makes three dimensional, thanks to Farhadi's way with him.
Oh, how I wish I could divulge more, but to do so would be to rob you of the joy of this film.
The 1.85:1 1080p video transfer is fantastic. Farhadi works in a palette of earth tones that are rich and lush in this presentation. Additionally, Marie's house is old and tight and packed with ornate interior architecture as well as a plethora of, you know, stuff that people amass over the course of their lives—stuff that fills nooks throughout the house. The Past (Blu-ray) captures all of that beautifully. The DTS-HD 5.1 French audio track has little to challenge it in the way of competing noise, but the things it is asked to present—dialogue, street sounds, even silence—it does so with great clarity.
There are three extras that come with The Past (Blu-ray). The first is the director's commentary. While Farhadi has a lot to offer when speaking about his creative process, the commentary is subtitled because Farhadi speaks almost no English. I found this challenging. This language "barrier" also has an effect on the Director's Guild of America Q&A session, the second extra on the disc. Farhadi understands English, so when the moderator asks a question, the director knows what he has heard, but a translator must offer his answer. His responses are interesting (although I thought the moderator was, at times, a little flustered), but the flow stumbles. The third extra is a making-of, and it is so very interesting. It not only contains the standard behind-the-scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, and clips, it also covers aspects of the filmmaking process like set construction and actor rehearsals. This is not something you normally see, and it's a great watch.
All three extras contain spoilers. You have been warned.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For as wonderful as everything is, by the end of The Past I wondered what it was all for. To be any less vague is to be over-revelatory, so I will offer only this thought: it's where characters wind up at the end of the story—specifically Samir—that have me scratching my head and wondering what was the purpose of the exercise. It's a beautiful exercise, but to what end?
Also, the 130-minute run time is about 20-30 minutes more than necessary.
If for no other reason than to become mesmerized by Farhadi's creative gifts and the talent of the cast, The Past is worth seeking out. Even though I know the ending and struggle a little with how and where the characters finish the film, I'll gladly watch it again.
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