The Past (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

ThePast 75Which is why The Past feels like a disappointment, despite actually being something close to very good.

ThePast 500

There’s a certain type of film where, if made by an unknown director, I would love it, but coming from an established director it feels like a disappointment. That’s how the new Asghar Farhadi film The Past is. This scenario makes it unusually difficult to make lucid my opinion of the film. Is The Past a good film? Yes, without a doubt. But, it bears perhaps too many similarities to Farhadi’s breakthrough, 2011’s A Separation, and A Separation is easily the better film of the two. Which is why The Past feels like a disappointment, despite actually being something close to very good.

The scenario here is that a thirtysomething Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) comes to Paris to meet with his estranged French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, who you’ll recognize as Peppy from The Artist) to tie up some loose ends, which she’s pushing for so that she can move on and marry her current boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). There are a lot of kids in play, though, and through the kids Ahmad becomes increasingly aware of tensions in his abandoned Parisian home.

If this plot synopsis sounds vague, that’s intentional on my part, and I’m sorry. The reason for it is that, as anyone who saw A Separation knows, Farhadi is truly excellent at slowly parceling out little bits of information, and somehow making what seems like it should be a slow drama play like a compelling thriller. For example, you’ll wonder at the beginning of the film just who the parents are of the three kids who are running around—the revealing of information regarding their parentage is just one of an endless stream of tiny revelations. Hell, neither the fact that Ahmad and Marie used to be married nor the reason for Ahmad’s return to Paris are made clear right away; maybe I should have put a spoiler warning ahead of them, despite their unavoidable relation to the overall plot?

In addition to his already-mentioned positive traits, Farhadi is a great director of actors. I’ve come to expect Rahim to be great, as he was so wonderful in 2009’s A Prophet, and the previously-unknown-to-me Mosaffa is a very likeable character, but it’s really Bejo’s show here. I liked her a lot in The Artist, but here it’s revealed how strong a presence she has. She has gotten tons of accolades for her performance in this film, not least of which the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but really to give her an acting prize kind of overlooks just how magnetic she is. You can’t take your eyes off of her (nor can the characters in the movie, apparently), and this isn’t simply a result of her physical beauty—there’s something else there, a distant kind of flawed sadness, that I have a lot of trouble imagining any other actress pulling off.

But yes, in the end The Past feels like too close to a retread of A Separation. If you’re going to rehash a movie, though, it helps when the one you’re doing is one of the best in recent memory. And besides, with The Past Farhadi joins the small group of the world’s filmmakers who really excel at just telling a great story—at this point, I’m ready to put him in the same category as Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar and South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong. | Pete Timmermann

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