By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist December 19, 2013 at 5:30PM
When "The Past" opens, we see a couple communicating through a thick pane of glass at an airport. They can't hear each other, but through gestures and mouthed words, they can get the gist of what the other is saying, but between them is an immovable object that prevents a full understanding of what they mean to say. It's an apt visual metaphor with which "A Separation" director Asghar Farhadi's opens his latest film, a picture that finds four lives thrown into turmoil over hidden feelings, confused emotions and a dark secret that could change everything.
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.
Marie's eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), fathered by another man she was involved with before Ahmad, is in the throes of what appears to be teenage rebellion, hardly tolerating her mother and staying out late every night. Meanwhile, Samir's son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) struggles to adjust a new household while still learning how to process the loss of his mother and Samir's wife, who is in a coma. Meanwhile, remaining a quiet witness to it all is Marie's other daughter, the young Lea (Jeanne Jestin).
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.
It's an intricate narrative, with numerous relationships that are deeply layered and complex, and perhaps the strongest element Farhadi puts forth is through the script. This is a tremendously well written piece of work, with impressively developed characters, with scene after scene that further enriches and deepens our comprehension of their actions, yet never judges any of them. It certainly helps that Farhadi gets quartet of excellent, pitch perfect performances.
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.
Unfortunately, it's in those later stages where "The Past" ever so slightly fumbles from being great, to very, very good. In the third act of the film, Farhadi makes a crucial decision to try to tie up every thread, and bring some resounding conclusions to the film, and it results in perhaps giving too many answers where some open questions might have been more dramatically potent. Much of this portion is almost procedural in nature, with a twist giving way to an investigation of sorts, and particularly with Ahmad put to the side, this shift attempts to bring some clarity and finality to "The Past." But this is a story that doesn't need a hard resolution -- it works best and most powerfully when the answers aren't certain, and the road ahead for these characters is unclear.
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]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.