Monday, January 20, 2014

The Past

Since The Artist, I've been something of a Bérénice Bejo fan.  I saw her in a supporting role in Populaire last year and in December I saw her as the lead in The Past.  I saw The Past (or Le Passé) at the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto.

The Past starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim & Pauline Burlet; directed by Asghar Farhadi; French & Persian with subtitles; (2013) - Official Facebook

Asghar Farhadi, the director of The Past, previously directed the Iranian film A Separation, a film I was impressed with.  A Separation was structured like a mystery but The Past seemingly has no life if one is an existentialist.  Marie (Bérénice Bejo), a pharmacist with two daughters, picks up her husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport.  The two have been separated for many years and Marie now wants a divorce so she can marry her new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim).  The film is set in France so I found it odd that Marie would marry two Iranian men but this is largely left unexplained.

When Ahmad arrives at the house he & Marie shared, he reacquaints himself with Marie's daughters whose father was Marie's first husband; the husband before Ahmad.  Also in the brood is Samir's son, Fouad who has behavioral issues which Ahmad finds concerning.  It's from Fouad that Ahmad discovers that Samir & Fouad have moved into the house which makes Marie's insistence that Ahmad stay there confusing.  Finally, it is from Marie's eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) that Ahmad discovers disturbing news about Samir's wife and Fouad's mother.

Samir is married.  His wife attempted suicide several months ago.  She was unsuccessful and is now hospitalized in a coma.  Lucie claims the woman attempted suicide in front of her son but Lucie's views are suspect because she harbors clear dislike of Samir.

It is into this soap opera-like story, Ahmad and the audience are deposited.  Ahmad has completely extricated himself from Marie's life but based on her behavior and Lucie's urging, Ahmad can slowly feel himself pulled back in.  Of course, this makes no sense if Marie is about to marry Samir but how can she marry him if he has a wife albeit a comatose wife?

Eventually we discover that Samir's wife was aware of her husband's affair with Marie.  She was made aware by Lucie who hacked into Marie's email and forwarded Marie & Samir's love letters to Samir's wife.  That explains why Lucie dislikes Samir - she feels guilt which would be assuaged if Samir were to leave the relationship with her mother.

Let's summarize the characters - Marie appears in over her head with life's problems, Samir is of questionable character given his relationship with his wife, Lucie has an acute sense of teenage angst caused by her own actions and Ahmad, who previously attempted suicide and has abandoned his wife for several years, is the most stable of the bunch.

Director Farhadi has a deft touch.  The film never feels contrived or melodramatic.  The Past feels like you are looking at a family, a dysfunctional family but not to an unbelievable extent.  At the end of the film, you feel like all the characters except Ahmad are worse off for the experience but they'll have to muddle through.  Indeed, Marie seems to be the nexus of the dysfunction without consciously being aware of how her actions affect others.

The Past doesn't have the gravitas of The Separation but it is a well made film with strong performances by the ensemble cast.  The title of the film is a reference to the events within the film.  The audience is left to decipher the events of the past through the state of the present.  This is very confusing but as details of the past emerge, we get a better picture of how this set of characters came to this juncture.


The Past was Iran's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film for this year's Oscar.  I find it odd that a film mainly in French was Iran's submission.

I have seen 7 films which were submitted for that category.  The Hunt (Denmark), Two Lives (Germany), The Grandmaster (Hong Kong), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Great Passage (Japan) and Soul (Taiwan).  The Hunt and The Great Beauty were nominated for the award.

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