When Ahmad (Ali Mosoffa) lands in Paris, he's ostensibly there to help his ex-wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) move on. Four years after he separated from her and moved back to Iran, he's back to finalize divorce papers so she can get married to Samir (Tahar Rahim). But what he finds when he arrives back at Marie's is a household in turmoil. And soon, Ahmad finds himself as the fulcrum and moderator between everyone, trying to find a way to press forward, when various elements from their past weigh heavily upon them.
That's about all that can be said of the story, which unfolds over two hours almost as a compressed miniseries, with revelation upon revelation (best experienced firsthand) building in a slow burn manner to a crescendo. While Farhadi's film doesn't aspire to be anything more than a (mostly) really well realized melodrama, it doesn't diminish the accomplishment of the picture. The story is really about four lives still reckoning with their past -- both recent and otherwise -- that are still having present day consequences. Marie has been involved with three different men in her brief lifetime, creating a family dynamic that is a constant reminder; Samir is still feeling the pull of his wife, eight months in a coma, even as he tries to forge new life with Marie and Ahmad, and still has lingering threads from his departure four years ago to wrap up.
While some may have had concerns about Berenice Bejo taking over from the originally cast Marion Cotillard, this role solidifies her as the real deal. She gives a totally different turn from "The Artist," and arguably the toughest and most unsympathetic part of the film as Marie, who has to reconcile with her daughter, ex-husband and current beau. Bejo finds all the right notes, in a unscrubbed, nicely toned performance. Mosoffa might be the heart of the entire movie, an almost self-martyring figure, whose desire to make peace might affect his own self-preservation. Meanwhile, Rahim is the most internalized, but his is a character that opens in intriguing ways, particularly in the later stages of the movie. And a special note of attention must go to Burlet (who looks remarkably like Cotillard), who also handles some very tricky material involving her character with great skill.
But this hardly betrays "The Past," so much as moves it in a direction that is simply less invigorating than what came before. There is so much that Farhadi and his latest film does right, and does well, that you're eager to follow where he takes the story regardless. Mature and real in a way that dramas rarely aspire too, "The Past" posits that sometimes the only way to move on from where you've been, is to turn around and face it head on. [B]