Asghar Farhadi’s previous film “A Separation,” which focused on the breakdown of a marriage in present-day Tehran, was a domestic drama that went beyond its homebound confines to touch on wider political and societal issues in modern Iran. “The Past,” his follow-up to it, also deals with a troubled familial situation, but although the characters are again Iranian, the locale is France, and that doesn’t allow for similarly expanded narrative breadth. Moreover, the situations are more contrived this time around. The result is that while the film exhibits the same artfully complex view of human relationships that marked its predecessor, overall it feels more limited and less powerful. “The Past” is, quite simply, a superb soap opera, but no more than that.
As the film begins, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from Iran to sign the papers of divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo). Like her, he’d been an expatriate in France but left the country—and Marie—several years earlier to return to his homeland. Though expecting to stay in a hotel until the legalities are finished, Marie invites him to bed down in her house, along with her daughters by an earlier marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin). She hopes Ahmad will be able to find out why Lucie, with whom he was always close, has turned sullen and rebellious.
But the house also has two other occupants—Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry-cleaning store owner who’s her new fiancé, and his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis). They’re understandably nonplussed by Ahmad’s presence, which only adds to the depression they feel because Samir’s wife lies hospitalized in a coma that resulted from a failed suicide attempt, kept alive by a respirator.
Despite its title, “The Past” contains no flashbacks, though it features a great deal of conversation about what occurred in the months and years preceding the few days it records. The immediate reason for Ahmad’s return—the divorce—is handled peremptorily, in a single scene in an advocate’s office, since it’s essentially an uncontested legal matter. The film instead is concerned with disentangling how the turmoil of the present—involving Marie, Samir, and all the children—arose from what happened previously, and why. The explanation also involves Naima (Sabrina Ouazani), an illegal worker in Samir’s store, while Ahmad’s old friend restaurateur Shahriyar (Babak Karimi) and his wife Valeria (Valeria Cavalli) watch from the sidelines and offer advice as he proves the catalyst for revelations and reconciliation.
Much of what happens in the picture is actually melodrama; any story in which a comatose would-be suicide cast a pall over the proceedings can’t escape that classification. But like Susanne Bier at her best, Farhadi is able to treat topics that might be overwrought in other directors’ hands with a sense of restraint that keeps them grounded in reality. A good deal of his success in doing so comes from the sensitive performances he draws from his cast. Though Bejo can be shrill at times—so much so that one might wonder how she’s attracted so many men (though the fact that she hasn’t managed to keep any of them very long is telling)—for the most part she’s affecting in her desperation. Mosaffa is quietly revelatory as the oasis of calm in the midst of familial chaos, and Rahim equally effective as a man troubled by doubts about his own guilt for his wife’s condition and trying to maintain a father-son relationship with a young boy who’s obviously suffering the effects of the traumatic loss of his mother, and who acts out as a result—a part that Aguis plays extraordinarily convincingly for one so young. (His scenes with both Samir and Ahmad, with whom he develops a real friendship after a hostile beginning, are among the film’s best.) Burlet is only slightly less persuasive as a teen with a secret that haunts her, while Jestin is the very model of childish innocence and abandon.
In terms of what it covers, therefore, “The Past” does what it sets out to do very well. But while like “A Separation” it’s essentially an intimate piece, unlike that film it doesn’t penetrate into the larger societal milieu. Of course it gradually reveals, almost in the manner of detective story, how the present is inevitably shaped by what’s preceded it, but that observation can hardly be treated as revelatory. Still, so long as one doesn’t expect more from it than what it is, Farhadi’s film—beautifully crafted not only by the director but by the crew (production designer Claude Lenoir, costumer Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz, cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, and editor Juliette Welfling)—casts a powerful spell through its rigorous attention to material detail and its unhurried but methodical pace. The score by Evgueni and Youli Galperine is also unobtrusively compelling.
“The Past” ends inconclusively, not disclosing precisely what the future will bring for these damaged characters. That’s part of its message, of course: one never knows what tomorrow will bring. Or even what the past did. After all, as Faulkner observed, “The past isn’t dead—it isn’t even past.”