Initially coming on like a sequel to his previous film A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past starts with a literal separation. In this case it is a glass wall at the airport separating Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her soon to be ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). They are both talking but neither can hear each other. This scene nicely sets up one of the directors major preoccupations: fractured families. And what a fractured family we have here. Ahmad is returning to Paris from Iran to sign divorce papers to end their marriage. Marie is now living with Samir (Tahar Rahim), his young son Fouad (the brilliant Elyes Aguis) and Marie’s two daughters including a troubled teenager. The house is chaotic and Ahmad seems to settle in initially much to Samir’s resentment. But there is a lot more to this set up than meets the eye. Samir ex partner is in a coma and there are still many conversations to be had around this piece of information.
The Past is a film with a lot to live up to. About Elly (made before his masterpiece A Separation but release in the wake of that films success) is a film that also has a secret and a mystery at its heart. We are on familiar ground here and indeed the first hour of the film, all familial set up and tightening of the screws is terrific. At this point you feel that Farhadi is going to pull off another major success. But alas for the next seventy minutes the film falls away to the point that you really think more judicious editing was needed. Drama becomes melodrama, the melodrama becomes draining and we are then given a third act straight out of an Agatha Christie novel. It is exhaustive and exhausting and it extinguishes the goodwill built up over the carefully plotted first hour.
The acting from the entire cast is superb. Bejo is just wonderful and manages to keep the whole film together. The camerawork is excellent with scenes staged in close up to give a claustrophobic feel. The screenplay is too wordy and this is where the film really falls down. Whereas the drama in A Separation is similar to here the script was more economic and this in turn made A Separation more heart wrenching. When the characters in that film hurt you saw it. In The Past you hear it, over and over. The real pity here is that Farhadi gets it so right at the end. There is a scene at the climax of the film set in a hospital that is just beautiful and its simplicity only makes you angry at the baggy and hysterical hour that preceded it. The Past is a film that many will enjoy but few will remember 5 years from now. Farhadi is still a filmmaker to be reckoned with and will surely produce more great films in the future. But The Past will not be considered one of his finest.