Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has made the trip from Iran to Paris for the first time in four years to finally sign divorce papers, officially ending his marriage to Marie (BÃ©rÃ©nice Bejo) at her request. Upon his arrival at the airport, Marie sees him through a thick pane of glass. She smiles, he shrugs. The airline has lost his bag and will have to send it to him the following day. They communicate by mouthing words and using hand gestures. One understands the other, but the metaphor is quite clear.
At this moment in the film we know nothing about these two people. They could be happily married and he returning home from a business trip and she simply picking him up, but writer/director Asghar Farhadi and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari‘s visual representation of the invisible barrier between the two weighs heavy on the rest of the film.
Farhadi’s The Past (Le Passe) rolls into the 2013 Cannes Film Festival with the pressure of living up to his Oscar-winning feature A Separation. With the entirety of the film world watching, I’d argue he’s delivered something just as good if not better.
The dark secrets this film hides are slowly revealed, some raising more questions than answers. The first comes only minutes into the film as Ahmad learns not only is Marie engaged, but she’s living with another man. Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), now reside where he once lived alongside Marie and her two children.
More than ever he expects Marie has made hotel reservations like they’d discussed, only to learn she expects him to bunk in the same room with Fouad for a couple days. The reason for this decision is quickly revealed to be part of an ulterior motive to get him to speak with her eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who’s been detached and coming home later and later each night.
These are the roots of this story and the primary players that walk its halls and if Farhadi’s screenplay isn’t yet again a contender for an Oscar someone wasn’t paying attention.
Nominated for an Oscar in the Original Screenplay category for A Separation, Farhadi has more than lived up to expectations with his follow-up. The screenplay for The Past is so good even questionable scenes become great as the words he’s written roll off his actors’ tongues, making it nearly impossible to argue for their excision.
If the film runs into any trouble it’s in its third act where all the cards are placed on the table and more and more information comes to light to the point it’s almost too much. Yet, the film sustains its momentum due entirely to the writing and performances.
Farhadi balances four characters with such grace that when one of them disappears for about ten minutes you begin to feel their absence, wanting them to return as you feel the characters left behind may unravel entirely if all the pieces are not kept together.
Bejo may have made an international splash with The Artist, but here she is allowed to show her full range. Marie is a character as complicated as any I have seen. I’ve found myself asking people if they believe she’s a good person and not a one can give me a definitive answer and yet I’d be willing to bet they all share compassion for her.
As Ahmad, Mosaffa is the film’s rock. He’s the middle ground, the wise man in the bunch, but Farhadi doesn’t let him off the hook that easily as a challenging past is hinted at. After all, why hasn’t he been back to Paris to see the woman he’s still legally married to for four years? Ahmad’s gentle nature also gives him great power as he slams his fist down on a table in one scene that not only commands the attention of everyone in the film, but everyone in the audience. It’s rare such a simple gesture, as forceful as it may be, is one that has had everyone I’ve spoken to buzzing, but that’s the depth of character these actors have achieved.
Opposite Mosaffa, Rahim first came to my attention in A Prophet. He has a face of pure innocence with shades of mystery behind his eyes. Samir often wears a blank expression with his mouth slightly agape, but he’s like a volcano ready to explode, a man you’d be wary of, never sure what might cause him to snap. With Ahmad entering territory he’s come to call his own, it’s understandable how he could feel challenged, though Ahmad’s presence is only a fraction of the story.
Those three aside, the film finds its most surprising performance in Pauline Burlet as Marie’s eldest daughter Lucie. Burlet played a 10-year-old Edith Piaf in La vie en rose and her resemblance to that film’s star, Marion Cotillard (who was originally set to star in Bejo’s role) is uncanny. If the eyes were ever a window to a person’s soul, Burlet’s are the mountaintop, inviting us in and never letting us leave.
I also must give little Elyes Aguis some love. His performance as Samir’s son, Fouad, is so heart-breakingly tender and filled with fire you’ll be amazed at not only how Farhadi was able to tell this story from a variety of perspectives, but how he found all the right actors to do it.
If there was any doubt Farhadi could continue beyond his work in A Separation, he’s set that doubt aside. While I would say the film felt about 20 minutes longer than it actually was and the third act does begin to pile on, you simply can’t and don’t want to stop watching. The screenplay and performances are so utterly outstanding, and characters so complicated and intriguing, you don’t want to let them go.