Featuring: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Sabrina Ouazani
Director: Asgar Farhadi
Writer: Asgar Farhadi
Movie website: www.madman.com.au/catalogue/view/20478/
2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 27 Jan–2 Feb, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 4–9 Feb, 8pm
Verdict: A formidable achievement in realist domestic drama, featuring masterful dialogue and characterisation, and an outstanding cast
Tehran-based Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris at the request of his estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) to finalise their divorce. Reluctantly acceding to stay in the house in which he once lived, Ahmad finds himself drawn into a sticky web of relationship intrigue involving Marie, her troubled and resentful teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), and new flame Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife is in hospital on life-support after attempting suicide.
The film opens with Marie greeting Ahmad from the other side of a glass wall separating arriving passengers from the public waiting in the airport lounge. They mouth words, unable to properly communicate but seemingly pleased to see each other, affectionate even. The assumption is that they are intimates: husband and wife, lovers, siblings. But nothing is quite as it appears here. In fact, they are an estranged couple, about to divorce. And the initial warmth between them soon gives way to tension and testiness.
This gradual peeling away of layers to reveal glimpses of the truth that lies beneath is the narrative modus operandi of the film, and appropriately so. It’s a case of the subject matter determining the structure. The metaphorically resonant opening prefigures the central concerns of the film – misperception, miscommunication and disconnection. Indeed, it is as if the characters are separated by invisible walls, as guilt, self-deception, lies and misunderstandings, and differing perceptions of past actions and misdeeds combine to complex melodramatic effect.
Just as the characters are unable to reach each other, isolated by their hidden agendas, fears and motivations, and armour of self-delusion, so the viewer learns only by degree what’s driving them. The answers are never spoonfed, never black and white, or revealed in entirety on the first pass.
For example, Ahmad is close to Marie’s teen daughter Lucie, and with her best interests at heart seeks to discover the reasons behind her hostility towards her mother and Samir. Eventually, she breaks down and confides in him, but while it appears the case is closed, we learn subsequently that she is scapegoating Samir, projecting her own terrible guilt on to him, holding on to a dark secret she dare not share. Yet even this truth beneath is not as it appears when finally revealed…there is always another layer to peel away.
The film is riveting in its eye-to-the-keyhole depiction of domestic life, propelled by masterfully-written dialogue that is tight, extraordinarily realistic, and seamless in its exposition. The actors relish the superb script; the performances are near-perfect, right down to the minor roles (eg: Elyes Aguis comes close to stealing the show as Samir’s disturbed young son, Fouad).
There are some minor flaws. Occasionally, the miscommunication theme overrides the realism of the dialogue. For example, Marie complains of a sore wrist soon after picking up Ahmad from the airport, getting him to change gears for her. He does so without asking how she sustained the injury. She refers to her sore wrist on several later occasions, again without response from him. This doesn’t ring true. Ahmad is a caring guy. (We eventually learn what happened, but this seems a case of taking the show-not-tell dictum too far).
Further, the layer-peeling becomes a little tiresome in the last third of the movie, when a rather contrived sub-plot is introduced. Some momentum is lost, and there’s a slight but nagging sense that it’s all gotten a bit too “clever”.
The work begins as it started, with a scene encapsulating the theme of isolation through miscommunication – this time tragically. It should be a heartbreaker of a finish, but Farhadi falls short of realising its dramatic potential in forfeiting realism for lyricism (and ignoring an obvious logic flaw). That is not to deny the beauty of the scene, however, or the masterful filmmaking and performances that, for the most part, precede it.
There’s a big critical buzz around Asgar Farhadi, and The Past is, indeed, a formidable achievement. With a little editorial tightening in the latter stages, it might have been truly great.
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