Asghar Farhadi may have left his native Iran to shoot a picture in Paris starring Berenice Bejo, but in all the ways that count, “The Past” couldn’t feel closer to home. Like 2011’s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” this is an exquisitely sculpted family melodrama in which the end of a marriage is merely the beginning of something else, an indelible tapestry of carefully engineered revelations and deeper human truths. If Farhadi’s sense of narrative construction is almost too incisive at times, costing the drama some focus and credibility in the final reels, he nonetheless maintains a microscopic attention to character, performance and theme that will make this powerfully acted picture a very classy specialty-division prospect.
Few filmmakers today can honestly claim to be working in the Renoir humanist tradition, but “The Past” is the veritable embodiment of the central “Rules of the Game” maxim that everyone has their reasons. As familiar as they are often unpredictable, Farhadi’s finely etched characters are forever revealing new sides of themselves to the camera, pulling the viewer’s sympathies every which way as the human condition is not just examined but anatomized.
All the ingredients of a pressure-cooker scenario are in place at the outset, as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce from wife Marie (Bejo) after a four-year separation. Almost immediately the two start bickering, not entirely in the manner of a couple ready to call it quits, although the various complications that Farhadi gradually reveals, layer by layer, preclude any serious possibility of a reconciliation.
Once the soon-to-be-exes arrive at Marie’s charmingly ramshackle abode on the city’s outskirts, where she lives with two daughters from a prior relationship, Ahmad becomes embroiled in a nearly untenable situation. Marie’s eldest, sullen teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) strongly disapproves of her mother’s plans to wed Samir (Tahar Rahim), the latest in a line of boyfriends. Marie’s other daughter, Lea (Jeanne Jestin), and Samir’s son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), scamper underfoot, causing trouble in the harmless but disruptive manner of young tots. In crises big and small, Ahmad is called upon to be a rational, stabilizing force, even as his very presence is a source of tension.
“The Past” is, in some ways, a curious title for a film that unfolds so urgently and rigorously in the present tense. Farhadi’s script supplies no flashbacks and wastes no time on exposition, instead mining emotion and insight from all the petty resentments and (seemingly) thoughtless remarks that define everyday existence. And yet the past emerges nonetheless; it’s what the characters, nursing their grudges and regrets, can’t bring themselves to move beyond, and it’s what the meticulously crafted surface of Farhadi’s film reveals despite its inexorable forward momentum.
Per the director’s own description, “A Separation” was a detective story of sorts, devised in such a manner as to frustrate the viewer’s sense of conventional heroism and villainy, as well as to illuminate a particular sphere of contempo Iranian society. Although “The Past” lacks its predecessor’s laserlike cultural specificity, it boasts a similar whodunit element, particularly evident in the ways the characters withhold secrets and information, perpetuating misunderstandings in the name of shielding each other from pain. Still, at least one of the mysteries here, involving Samir’s relationship with his estranged, comatose wife, is distractingly over-contrived.
But even when the script’s underlying machinery reveals itself, the actors remain unimpeachably authentic, the crucial test being that every character will probably annoy you at some point. In a performance of bristling intelligence and verbal acuity that may surprise audiences who know only her silent turn from “The Artist,” Bejo embodies a particular brand of hotheaded, hopelessly romantic Gallic femininity without tilting into cliche. Mosaffa is remarkable as a well-intentioned outsider with a melancholy streak, hinting at a history of depression that factors into the story at various points. Rahim emerges later in the proceedings but becomes a prominent and sympathetic figure, in perfect keeping with Farhadi’s highly democratic methods.
The director retains his enormous sensitivity to the feelings and attitudes of emotionally vulnerable children, as well as to the caliber of the actors hired to play them. Burlet, who played a young Edith Piaf in 2007’s “La Vie en rose,” is a revelation as Lucie, providing a quietly reproachful rejoinder to her mother’s shrill bursts of temper. Aguis, too, has heartrending moments as a boy whose awareness of his broken family situation has made him unusually hostile toward authority.
Farhadi’s unobtrusive mise-en-scene is entirely in service of story and character here. Avoiding any remotely touristic views of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, d.p. Mahmoud Kalari (“A Separation”) finds a lovely lighting scheme for the slightly disheveled, peeling-paint interiors the characters inhabit. Juliette Welfling’s editing is bracingly alert at all times, and Evgueni and Youli Galperine’s score is used, wisely and sparingly, to bookend the action.