Thursday, 10 April 2014

Review of The Past

For me, the title of Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is a misnomer; this film is not so much about the past as it is about communication. The film begins with a scene at an airport. A woman is stood, expectantly, with a smile teasing her lips. A man enters the screen. He is bearded, aloof, and has a scatterbrained air about him. A pane of glass separates the two, and when she calls for his name, he cannot hear her. A third party points him to her, and he realises. Geddit?

It turns out that she is his ex-wife and he is there to finalise the divorce. They separated, or he walked out, some years ago, and she has kids who weren’t his in the first place. She is called Marie and is played by Berenice Bejo, who you may remember from The Artist, and he is called Ahmad and is played by Ali Mosaffa, who I am unfamiliar with as an actor, but who does excellent work here.

She drives him to her house, and it is clear that there is a familiarity between them. The truth is that she did not expect him to come; there are repeated references to “last year”, where he didn’t turn up. He claims that he was genuinely unable to make it; she doesn’t care, or want an excuse. When they arrive at her house, the first thing he does is fix the bike of a young child called Fouad. Fouad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim, who was so excellent in The Artist), and Samir is going out with Marie. If Ahmad is made sad by this revelation, then he is not quick to show it, and it is here we learn that Ahmad and Marie are not going to get back together. He is, however, surprised, and asks why he wasn’t told. He was told, Marie says, she sent it in an e-mail. He didn’t check his e-mails. Communication.

We piece together bits and bobs about each character. Marie has a hot temper. Ahmad is quiet, contemplative, and always has time for children. Why did he walk out? Because he was depressed, but also because we sense that he was simply dissatisfied with his life, along with his ex-wife’s dissatisfaction with him. Samir also has a hot temper, but we also learn sometime later that he is living with immense grief; his wife has been in a coma for several months due to a suicide attempt. Pay attention to how he forces his finger under people’s chins when he wants them to look at something. Fouad is a problem child, but we are also willing to forgive him; one quiet but effective scene bluntly explores the impact of having a mother in a coma, filtered through the simplistic morality of a young child.

The most important role in the film, however, goes to Lucie who is played by Pauline Burlet. At first, she appears as though she is a normal teenager; sullen, sulky, unwilling to be at home, but as the film goes on we learn more and more about her, and we realise that her actions have a far more sinister, tragic meaning behind them which I won’t ruin here; but, I will say, they are connected to the idea of communication.

If you have seen A Separation, Farhadi’s 2011 masterpiece, then you will have some idea of what this film is like, and how it is about what it is about. This is, however, a much quieter and understated film. The frantic editing and camerawork of A Separation is only here in one or two sequences, and the camera remains stationary in several crucial scenes. The style of the film is naturalistic, the acting seems wholly “real”, and there are no visual flourishes or a colour scheme, aside from a pervasive brown that doesn’t seem too pointed, simply the product of the settings.

I admired this film. I admired how Farhadi drew a credible family unit, and I admired his attention to detail with the characters. I admired how each character felt real, and I especially admired the quiet, non-judgemental manner in which the dilemmas and situations were presented to us. But did I love this film? Nowhere near as much as I did A Separation. The film was a fierce, evocative and brutal film which was exploring a number of themes in detail, and with an unwavering eye. This film is, as I have said, really only about communication, and for me does not dwell on the past as much as the title would imply. It is a character study, but A Separation was a character study and more.

Perhaps I’m being cruel to compare this film so mercilessly to its predecessor. But it’s clearly made in the same vein, and they both highlight his style. There is a lot to this film, and it does reward a careful audience. It is a contemplative, thoughtful piece. It seems harsh of me to say “but that’s it”, but, well, that’s it. 

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