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Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi pursues his exploration of guilt, choice and responsibility in a superbly written, directed and acted drama that commands attention every step of the way. As in his previous work, the story is set within a family and children are once again the main victims. Here, however, Farhadi’s nearly flawless screenplay foregoes the explosive shocks that electrified Fireworks Wednesday and About Elly and drove A Separation on to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The Past plays like a low-key adagio in the hands of a masterful pianist, who knows how to give every note its just nuance and how every single phrase affects all the rest. A surprisingly dynamic, unsentimental central performance from The Artist’s charming Berenice Bejo should help audiences relate to the tale, which co-stars Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim in fine performances.
Though set in France, the story unfolds entirely in interiors, specifically a rambling house on the outskirts of Paris that is as full of doors and windows as the Tehran apartment of A Separation. At the request of his wife Marie (Bejo), from whom he’s been separated for four years, Ahmad (Mosaffa) returns from Iran to finalize their divorce. He doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s walking into. Viewers are kept on their toes trying to figure out the tangle of adult relationships, which have left a trail of insecure children in their wake.
Throughout most of the film, Ahmad is the calm, balanced observer who sees everything that’s going on with Marie, her new boyfriend Samir (Rahim) and the three kids they live with. But even the good psychologist Ahmad holds some surprises in reserve. The children themselves are not innocent, not “free from stain” one might say, to touch on a major plot point. But from Farhadi’s p.o.v. they are always the losers in their parents’ battles.
When Marie picks Ahmad up at the airport, their awkward distance is instantly defined by having them talk through a thick wall of glass. The fact that she’s driving a borrowed car tips Ahmad off that there’s another man in her life, a fact soon confirmed by little Lea and Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Instead of booking him into a hotel, Marie insists he stay in their house, quite an awkward thing with the handsome, morose Samir around. The two men do their best to shuffle civilly through their first meeting at breakfast. The tension in the household, however, gradually rises as ugly truths will out.
Samir runs a dry cleaners not far from the pharmacy where Marie works. Fouad is his son by Celine, his French wife who has been in a coma for eight months. Fouad likes living at Marie’s house with his playmate Lea, despite the fact Marie is nervous and fiery-tempered, realistically going overboard with the kids when they misbehave. Ahmad instead, who turns out not to be anybody’s father, has a wonderfully persuasive way with them, a talent that will draw him deeply into a hidden family drama worthy of Michael Haneke.
He’s particularly close to the 16-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who has been acting very strangely lately, staying away from the house and brimming over with hostility for her already edgy mom. Marie charges him with finding out what’s wrong with the girl. Reluctantly, but with the skill of a TV detective, Ahmad investigates. There are a few red herrings, like Marie’s sprained wrist, which coupled with her violent temper strongly suggests child beating. Worse than physical violence, however, is the poisonous climate of adult secrets of which the teenage Lucie seems to be a part: why is Samir’s wife in the hospital in a seemingly irreversible coma, for instance, and what is the role played by each of the characters in her tragedy?
The most fascinating thing about the script is written is the way it gradually unpeels motivation without taking sides; in fact, neither Bejo’s unbridled mother and lover, Mosaffa’s distanced outsider who has abandoned the family, nor Rahim’s morose adulterer act outside normal social mores. At the same time, the drama – which in other respects could have been performed as a play — is brilliantly heightened by the camerawork of D.P. Mahmoud Kalari , lending an intimate intensity and symbolic punch to virtually every scene.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 17, 2013.
Production companies: Memento Films Production in coproduction with France 3 Cinema, BIM
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahat Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Co-producers: Daniel Goudineau, Valerio De Paolis
Executive producer: Alexa Rivero
Director of photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Production designer: Claude Lenoir
Costumes: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine
Sales Agent: Memento Films International
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