Despite the broad appeal of star Gael Garcia Bernal, auds will find Hector Babenco’s wrestling of Alan Pauls’ novel “El pasado” into a feature-length film akin to someone jamming a chateaubriand into a champagne glass. It doesn’t fit, the overflow’s a mess, and you have to wonder why anyone bothered. U.S. distribution will be limited, and no one involved will benefit from their association with Babenco’s ambitious but failed effort.
“The Past” begins promisingly enough: After 12 years of marriage, everyone’s favorite couple — Rimini (Bernal), an interpreter, and his wife Sofia (Analia Couceyro) — are going their separate ways, but the split is thoroughly amicable. They still share a platonic bed, their behavior is more than civilized, they divide their possessions gracefully, and viewers will realize they’re seeing something they almost never see in drama: A couple divided, but remaining friends.
The reason one never sees it in drama, of course, is because it isn’t dramatic. This situation changes radically once Rimini starts seeing the beautiful Vera (Moro Anghileri), who may be insanely jealous, but begins the day by doing naked taichi. Sofia, harboring the belief that Rimini will come to his senses and return to her, begins her movie-long descent into lunacy, which includes episodes of irrationality, kidnapping and the formation of the Adele H. Society, consisting of women who’ve lost their men but firmly believe they’ll get them back, if only they act like maniacs.
Tonally, the problem is that the so-nuanced relationship between Rimini and Sofia, which might have been created by Henry James, suddenly turns into something out of Puccini, with operatic hysteria and a brand of feminine craziness that would be misogynistic if it weren’t so implausibly consistent.
Bernal is magnetic, but his Rimini is somehow numbed, perhaps by his own sex appeal: He moves, seemingly effortlessly, from Vera to Carmen (Ana Celentano) to Nancy (Mimi Ardu) suffering grievous wrongs at the hands of his women. At one point, Babenco renders Rimini as an unwashed Jesus, and one can almost hear the chorus, in helmets and spears, singing along.
Pauls’ novel is wonderful, if unwieldy, and Babenco is too faithful to it. By the end, it feels like the fat lady is never going to sing.
Production values are adequate.