By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz December 19, 2013 at 10:00AM
The Past, Iran's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Sony Pictures Classics. International Sales Agent: Memento Films International
Comparing the Academy Award-winning A Separation to Asghar Farhadi’s French-language film The Past, his first film outside of his native Iran, is like comparing two equally beautiful diamonds cut differently by the same master jeweler. The only reasonable way to put them on the same ground is to note the masterful caliber of storytelling achieved once again by the Iranian auteur. It is hard to think of any other working writer/director that has such a perfectly calibrated talent for creating tension out seemingly ordinary circumstances. Days after watching his latest work The Past its powerful themes and even more riveting mystery still linger refusing to be forgotten. Continuing with his fervent interest in failed relationships Farhadi proves that in his stories, just like many times in life, the end is actually only the beginning.
Persuaded by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and ready to bring his life in France to a conclusion, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Tehran to Paris to finalize their divorce after living apart for four years. Upon his return he is invited by Marie to stay at the house they used to share with the pretense that her daughters Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin) want to see him. He soon realizes Marie has someone else in her life, a young man named Samir (Tahar Rahim) who now lives in the house with his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Desperate for help, Marie needs Ahmad to talk to Lucie, a teenager, whose rebellious behavior and aversion towards Samir she can’t understand. Despite having no children as product of their marriage Ahmad is the only father figure Lucie can trust, and the only person to whom she will reveal the secrets that surround Marie’s relationship with Samir.
Involuntarily thrown into the family’s turmoil, Mosaffa’s character is a bystander who is trying to figure out what his role in the situation is. He acts as the diplomatic ambassador between all parties because he cares for the girls, but he can’t ignore Marie’s selfish decisions and her ulterior motives for needing his presence. Bejo is impeccable, contained at first but effectively explosive as her meticulously constructed life starts to fall apart when the morality of her romance with Samir is questioned. She can’t be judged for falling in love again, but what if that love became a dangerous catalyst for another person’s demise? Is she responsible for following her desires in spite of the damage? In turn, Samir's perspective takes over the last part of the film as he attempts to place the responsibility of his actions on someone else, only to discover that the past he thought would never return has been luring in the background.
It is precise to avoid revealing crucial details about the film’s twists and turns, as each of them comes at a specific time determined by the artist to infuse this intense drama with an enthralling quality that keeps the audience guessing. From behind windows and doors the viewer is made aware of his condition as a silent witness to the characters’ predicaments. Inaudible conversations add to the suspenseful mood that permeates the film only comparable to that of a high-octane thriller. Lead by an entire cast of magnificent actors, this a film that captures one’s attention instantly and only asks the viewer to be willing to be guided, and misguided, through the lives of its imperfect characters. Farhadi also plays with the viewer’s expectations and banks on his protagonists’ hesitation. Just when it seems like a secret will never be told, the master flips the story around, unveils said mysterious piece of information, and then outstandingly takes it away by setting up an even more important one. Evidently, this is the work of one of the most achieved dramatic artists in World Cinema today.
Farhadi crafts a story about the past entirely told in the present. Refusing to use flashbacks or to fully reveal the events that lead to what unfolds on screen, his drama reaches higher stakes as the characters faults are revealed one by one in an inconspicuous manner. Plagued with red herrings and half-truths there is no clear villain or unquestionable motivation. Written with full knowledge and command of the human condition, the director has scored another masterpiece of grand emotional value and keeps on pushing the boundaries of storytelling. His subjects are never left unaccountable for their actions or free of consequences, yet, for all the terrible outcomes of their past mistakes Farhadi offers them a new redemptive chance. He allows them to forgive, but not to forget. Undoubtedly, The Past is one of the best films of the year.