Alienation & isolation – in their awful ugliness – dominate Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s meticulous exploration of the myriad ways in which people misinterpret, wound and ultimately cripple each other. This claustrophobic examination of inter-twined marital/familial relationships among members of the close-knit Middle Eastern community in Paris features a brilliant screenplay, nearly flawless acting from its sizeable cast and the director’s celebrated ability to infuse even the tiniest bits of his storyline with stunning significance. In many ways, The Past confirms and extends themes Farhadi explored two years ago in A Separation, which won the Oscar in 2011 as Best Foreign Language Film. That movie was genuinely tragic – this one alas, sails off into the murky waters of complete despair.
Farhadi examines two marriages and the three children who resulted from them, opening his story with an impending divorce, a device he used in A Separation. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris from Teheran after a 4 year absence from his wife Marie, a pharmacist’s assistant. She lives in the couple’s middle class home with her two daughters; Lucie, a teenager from Marie’s previous marriage and Léa, an achingly beautiful grade-schooler. As the procedures required to formally end their already-dead marriage unfold, Ahmad learns that Marie is pregnant and in a relationship with Samir, a married man who owns a thriving dry cleaning business. He’s moved into Marie’s chaotic home, bringing along his embittered son Fouad. The latter’s anger is understandable; his mother lies in a coma at a nearby hospital, the result of a failed suicide attempt rooted in complex circumstances.
Amid accusations and counter charges, Ahmad finds himself thrust into the painfully raw relationships between his now former wife and her current lover, their role in the life of his deeply alienated adolescent step-daughter and Fouad’s inability to make sense of Ahmad’s sudden appearance, fearing it signals yet another disruption in the young boy’s rapidly fracturing life.
As the script slowly reveals the facts leading to the attempted suicide of Samir’s wife, the cast presents a panorama of individuals unwilling or unable to deal with each other in candid and supportive ways; hermetically sealed inside their own pain and frustration, each circles the others, lashing out in an exhausting rondo of screams, self-justifying anger and sarcastic confrontation. The result becomes an extended display of interpersonal nihilism; half-hearted hugs are shrugged off, old wounds revived to inflict new ones and efforts at reconciliation endlessly rejected. There’s pain and suffering aplenty in 21st century life Farhadi seems to be saying - - but precious little meaning; we live in a world without commonly accepted religious/social/ethical norms and thus reap the whirlwind of broken marriages, children without lifelong connections to one or more of their biological parents and personal relationships subject to an endless series of ruptures. Marie’s home and the one Samir still maintains above his business are so full of things – kitchen utensils, furniture, toys, bottles of perfume – that they’re frighteningly claustrophobic. What’s missing is any evidence of stability, coherence or the prospect of a better future.
Iran has long played a substantial role in the international movie business with various university degree programs at the undergraduate and masters levels in all aspects of filmmaking. Farhadi is a product of that environment as are many members of his cast, resulting in a production of considerable sophistication. Even the financing of The Past indicates the complexity of its origins; 17 different production companies had a financial hand in its arrival on the world’s movie screens. The results are technically impressive; cinematography, sound and editing are combined to excellent effect. Yet despite these advantages and the talents of its writer/director the result is a film with lots of heart-wrenching emotion but no soul.
The Verdict? One of the world’s truly gifted filmmakers goes looking for meaning in contemporary human relationships – and finds a void.
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