MRR Review: "The Past"

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Coming back to finalize his divorce procedure, Ahmad, an Iranian man, arrives in Paris after four years to meet his (soon to be) ex-wife and her daughters from her previous marriage. She is in a relationship with an Arab man named Samir who has a son and whose wife is in a coma. The relationship of the older daughter and her mother is strained because the daughter disapproves of her mother's relationship with Samir.
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MRR Review: "The Past"

Rating: PG-13
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2013
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Genre: Drama, Mystery

It's a shame of near-heartbreaking proportions that a movie as memorably acted and superbly crafted as "The Past" remains unknown by the majority of the movie-going public. While it's not uncommon for movies outside of the scope of Hollywood's omnipresent publicity machine to get released and fade away with a depressingly small amount of fanfare, this offering by award-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi deserves to be watched.

With his last film, "A Separation," Farhadi launched Iranian filmmaking into near-stratospheric levels, especially in comparison with the fairly moderate success the country has had in the past. While this film is set in France, it is crafted by Farhadi using the same deft hand and knack for storytelling that made "A Separation" such a success, as well as an Oscar winner. Here, the story becomes less about a society and more about the people in it, as they try to understand their past, accept their present, and navigate their future.

The story centers around three main characters, all twisted together and slowly tugged apart by the strong pull of human emotion and the brash power of truth. Marie (the beautiful Berenice Bejo, star of the critically acclaimed "The Artist") is in the midst of divorcing husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), in order to be with her new love, Samir (Tahar Rahim). There are numerous issues standing in the way of Marie and Samir's happily ever after, not the least of which is the fact that Samir's wife, who tried to commit suicide, lies in a coma.

That not insignificant glitch aside, there is also still an undercurrent of emotion evident in Marie and her soon-to-be ex-husband's interactions. While the tension of the situation is apparent, there is also tenderness at times, and a familiarity that only comes with years of cohabitation, love, and friendship. There are also the children to consider. Marie brought two daughters into her marriage to Ahmad; the elder seems to hold her step-father in higher regard than she does her mother or Samir, while the younger daughter, Lea, bonds with Samir's son Fouad, who has found himself symbolically orphaned by an unconscious mother and a distracted father.

The strength of "The Past" is in how it delves into this complex web of emotions and entanglements, peeling back layers and keeping the viewer fully committed to the story without ever hydroplaning and crashing into soap opera territory. It's difficult to relay the depth of this film and comment on its brilliance without revealing the plot, but to do so would be tantamount to cinematic sacrilege. Suffice to say, the way this movie has been pieced together has the effect of a microscope trained on a specimen the audience is not sure they really want to see—yet they're far too invested to look away, even as the image is twisted and blows away in the wind.

There is no CGI or green-screen trickery in "The Past"; instead, Farhadi's special effects bag consists of a unique ability to use the viewer's own perceptions and emotions to propel the story. The movie unfolds from several points of view, first Ahmed's, then Marie's, then Samir's, and even the children have a voice that is quietly insistent in its demands to be heard. These are the voices of the characters caught in real life, everyday drama; these are the emotions whirled around in life's blender when feelings change, relationships evolve, and people get hurt.

While the narrative is at times slow-moving, this trickle of information is what keeps the audience involved, knee-deep in tension and on the same unsure footing as the characters experiencing the ordeal. It's interesting to note that while the movie is shot in French, the director doesn't speak the language; this, more than anything, is a powerful testament to just how skilled the filmmaker is. Farhadi builds a story where words are almost secondary to the movement and body language on screen. People are separated by physical barriers as well as mental and emotional ones; communication is hindered by distance that is as much a sensory experience as it is palpable.

This is not a film that wraps itself up in a pretty little package; the character are flawed, and it's easy to hope for a happy ending, while at the same time having no idea what that ending would actually look like. Maybe that is Farhadi's point. Maybe the goal of "The Past" is to remind the viewer that things are always changing, that there is no definite happy ending, that someone always gets hurt, and that things are bound to be messy. There are certainly enough twists and turns in the movie to justify that reasoning.

This movie is almost a documentary examining the endless struggle everyone has with "the truth," a one syllable word has never been so loaded. And here, in the "The Past," the slow trickle of truth affects everything, in the present and future, for everyone.

Rating: 4 out of 5