TIFF13: The Past (2013)


The Past cements Asghar Farhadi as international cinema’s preeminent melodramatic storyteller. This isn’t meant as a slight. Melodrama is an honoured tradition of dramatic storytelling. It’s a genre like any other, with its signature features being plots revolving around complex emotions and the airing of secrets. Western critics largely ignored the melodrama in their discussion of A Separation due to their fascination with the intimate look into Iran that the film was, but it was a melodrama nonetheless.

With The Past,instead of another Iranian-set tale, Farhadi has crafted a French-set tale about the end of a marriage and the complexities of new relationships. It follows Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who returns to France from Iran to finalize his divorce to Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and finds himself as the mediator in his former family’s problems. Marie is in a burgeoning relationship with a man (Tahar Rahim) whose wife is in a coma and it has caused all sorts of problems for her family.

This is the kind of film that takes its time and the actors relish the material. Farhadi has a gentle touch with the camera, giving the performers ample room to let their emotions run loose. It’s a beautiful film — Farhadi seems to have adopted a more polished European visual sense — but the camera seeks to remain invisible. Farhadi’s type of melodrama isn’t usually prone to the shouting matches of American melodrama — full of fainting women and violent men — but there are such familiar outbursts here. In key scenes Bejo’s shrill screech lays bare Marie’s surmounting frustrations, and gives us a taste of why the actress won the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This is a different woman than the adorable dream girl of her husband Michel Hazanavicius’ parodies The Artist and OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

Although the French setting will lead many viewers to see The Past as an entirely different kind of beast than A Separation, the differences are not that prominent. Farhadi’s central focus is relationships, not society. His films don’t seem to be immediately political and instead focus on the personal ramifications of people’s choices. In this sense, The Past works as a companion piece to A Separation, exploring how very specific choices people make in their own best interest have a way of dictating the rest of their lives.

In this way, The Past is the perfect title for this film. Most every conversation focuses on past mistakes and the crippling regret people have regarding their actions. Farhadi remains the ever-sensitive actors director, and as Piers Handling noted in his introduction, his screenplay is extensively crafted. The film may run a tad too long and dip into one too many emotional contrivances, but The Past remains a beautiful and sensitive examination of personal problems. It remains the kind of perceptive filmmaking that only a director of Farhadi’s stature can accomplish.

8 out of 10

The Past (2013, Iran/France)

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi; starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, and Babak Karimi.

The Past plays on Sept. 7 during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations program.