Past, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/16/14 11:11:30
There are a couple of moments, toward the end of "The Past", when it feels like writer/director Asghar Farhadi has drifted too far from where he started. This is not necessarily a huge problem, because what he's doing is still excellent; it's just natural to expect to finish where one begins. The feeling passes, though, as there's certainly satisfaction to be found in a more complex story that isn't necessarily obvious from that first piece.Said piece is Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has just arrived in France from Tehran to finalize his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo), whom he left four years ago. They are apparently still on friendly terms; Marie even wants him to talk to her older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is being difficult even by the standards of 16-year-old girls. When he arrives, he finds Marie's younger daughter Léa (Jeanne Jestin) playing with Fouad (Elyes Aguis), the son of Marie's new fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim), and that's a bit more than he expected to have to deal with.
It's a crowded house, and one of the most wonderfully real things about the movie is that Farhadi takes that quite literally: With three bedrooms to be shared among six people, the adults spend some time rearranging things so that everybody fits to the kids' great frustration, a scenario that many whose families have gone through divorce and remarriage will find familiar. There are multiple repair projects going on throughout the house, and a shed out back storing the characters' actual baggage. It appears to have sometimes been hard to film in this place, but the way Marie's house reflects her life is a huge part of why the film is able to strike a chord.
The way Farhadi handles the kids is refreshingly genuine, too. Elyes Aguis is invisibly perfect as Fouad; the initial shyness around a new person, the way he frequently seems deeply hurt by something he doesn't begin to understand, and a fierce tantrum may just seem like a kid being a kid on the one hand, but on the other it's exactly right in a way that seems rare on film. Jeanne Jestin's Léa (like Fouad, about six) doesn't have the weighty material that the other kids do, but the young actress plays off every co-star perfectly. Most of all, Pauline Burlet is nothing short of fantastic as Lucie; from her first scene, it's clear that she's turbulent even as she's making sure she looks together for her little sister, and the way she breaks down in the set of scenes that starts to reveal what's really going on is perfect.
As good as the children are, the adults are just as impressive. Ali Mosaffa makes Ahmad a genial way for the audience to enter the story; he gives the character the sort of charm and easygoing manner that sells him as likely having been a pretty great stepdad, although he also does a fine job of bringing out the tensions and insecurities that suggest why his marriage(s) just did not work, even as little contrasting notes in scenes where things are going well. Tahar Rahim's Samir initially comes off as a somewhat bland younger copy of Ahmad, but Rahim proves quite capable of carrying more of the film as it becomes necessary. And Bérénice Bejo does some very impressive work as Marie; she's given the most obviously imperfect human being to portray, but manages to keep Marie someone that the audience can empathize with even when it's easy to disapprove of her actions at that moment. Bejo's scenes with Mosaffa, especially, are excellent; there's the remains of chemistry there, but enough of the original form to supersede the constantly lurking tension.
Watching them play off each other makes for an engrossing couple of hours, even though Farhadi spends a lot of time letting the audience just watch people circle each other warily. The thing set up as giving the movie structure actually happens with very little fuss early on, and while Farhadi will occasionally half-acknowledge that he has a set-up rather than a story, the natural way he sets up the way everyone interacts and doesn't over- or under-sell the consequences makes it work. The way he alludes to details beyond the scope of the story, such as the girls' father, without dragging them in helps. In fact, the drift toward the end that feels like it may drag The Past down to "just" being Very Good feels like the result of deciding there needs to be a plot and then trying to discretely fit a whole mystery story in the last half-hour; at one point I was certain they were going to forensically investigate the stain on a dress.Fortunately, Farhadi rights the ship well before it gets to that, concluding at a place that is realistically ambiguous but still fairly final. On the way, he's touched on subjects from depression to divorce with knowledge and sympathy, in a way that's serious but not overbearing. It's perhaps just a single leg of the characters' voyage, but an incredibly satisfying one to take with them.
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