Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Past

Grade: 85/A-

In the span of two years, Asghar Farhadi has gone from Iranian cinema also-ran to a must-watch director. 2011 masterpiece A Separation, about the divorce of an Iranian couple, was an uncommonly nuanced look at the breakdown of a marriage and how parents unwittingly hurt their children while trying to protect them. His new film, The Past, isn’t quite on the level of that film, but that’s hardly a knock against it. It confirms Farhadi as the heir apparent to Anton Chekhov, perhaps the most skillful pure dramatist working in modern cinema.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) are married, but they’ve been separated for four years. Ahmad returns from Iran to Paris to finalize their divorce after Marie gets engaged to Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad has been the primary father figure to Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie’s child from a previous marriage, who disapproves of her mother’s new relationship, as does Samir’s young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Ahmad learns that Samir is currently married, with his wife currently in a coma she’s unlikely to recover from, but the details of what put her into that coma are more complicated than they initially seem.

Farhadi shows the same gift for working with actors that he did in A Separation: this is one of the best ensembles of the year. It’s hard to screw it up when he’s given each of them a richly written role, but the actors all meet him more than halfway, from Mosaffa as the uncommonly patient but clearly wounded Ahmad to Rahim (best known for his great performance in A Prophet) as a loving but often stern man trying like hell to make the best of an impossible situation to Bejo, who dials down the megawatt smile she showed in The Artist to play a mother caught in the middle of the ire of both her daughter and stepson, for reasons that become increasingly complicated. Special props to Farhadi for getting great performances from the younger actors as well, with Burlet, Aguis, and Jeanne Jestin (as Marie and Ahmad’s daughter) all believably unsure of where they stand in the midst of their parents’ problems.

But as it was with A Separation, the biggest star is Farhadi’s brilliant script, which makes each character’s position empathetic at every turn. Farhadi sometimes leans too hard on the dialogue to explicate his theme (hint: it’s hard to move past, well, the past). But it hardly matters when he handles each character with such understanding and makes potentially melodramatic plot turns feel natural and wholly earned. Why do the characters avoid talking about the circumstances around the failed marriage? Why do people try to escape the past all of the time, when it’s unsuccessful almost without fail? Farhadi doesn’t give any easy answers. Few directors understand human complexity the way he does. I wish we had more of him.

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