This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 9th March 2014
Cinephiles who fell in love with Iranian director Asghar Farhadi for his Oscar-winning festival hit A Separation will be delighted to know that the follow-up proves his undoubted talent for producing hard-hitting realism from gripping performances.
Transporting a Middle Eastern story to the gritty suburbs of Paris, Farhadi’s cast speak French but maintain their Persian heritage as a man returns to his former lover and family to sign divorce papers after several years away. His partner (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo, make-up-free yet luminous) must contend with temporarily housing the two men in her life, while her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet) goes about his sullen business. Meanwhile, Ahmad (a superbly nuanced Ali Mosaffa) integrates effortlessly into family life, cooking Persian fare and parenting the children. Over the course of a few days, scabs are ripped off old wounds as everyone’s future is thrown into uncertainty.
Despite the kitchen sink drama, subtle acting from the opening scene onward allows us to quietly observe the players’ machinations and equivocations. The timbre of relationships is mostly portrayed through actions rather than words, especially impressive in the extraordinary cast of children who sport silent pouts and wounded eyes.
Farhadi has said The Past is an Iranian rather than French film, but viewers’ familiarity with either culture will determine whether they agree with him. Certainly, the core narrative dilemmas are universal as, typically, Farhadi has written a story of blame shifted by naturalistic interactions, where heavy rain and wet hair signify the weight of a past which threatens to destroy the future. Explosive details are eked out, keeping the audience guessing and enthralled until at last he allows us to breathe again.