Welcome back to our occasional feature of reviewing new films frustratingly close to the end of their cinematic run. Today is the turn of French drama Le Passé or The Past.
Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, The Past is stylistically and thematically similar to his Oscar-winning A Separation, but with the drama moved from Tehran to Paris. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Iran to the home of his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), in order to finalise their divorce, complicated by the presence of her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) and a whole bunch of children.
The best dramas succeed on the strength of their characters, and The Past is no exception, as each person feels completely real, no matter how limited their screen time. This makes it easy to invest in the intricate details of their lives, with great performances all round. Farhadi brings the same level of emotional complexity that made A Separation so compelling, with a similar narrative structure and no easy answers. Layers and layers of revelation each completely change our attitude towards the slowly unfolding story, as every character brings their own subjective interpretation of the same events, like Rashomon but without the samurais.
This drip-feeding of exposition does feel contrived, in a way it never did in A Separation. It’s unlikely that anyone would actually reveal increasingly startling information at such regular intervals in real life. Every few minutes someone seems to say, “you know why that is, don’t you?” before sharing a dramatic revelation. They withhold everything and release it in well-timed bursts like those plug-in air fresheners, in a way no one would ever do were they not a character in a drama. Even the idea of someone going to live with their ex who’s now in another relationship stretches plausibility, feeling more like the premise for a sitcom. Also, it might just be the translation in the subtitles, but people repeatedly talk about someone who’s in hospital because they “committed suicide”, when they surely only attempted suicide.
While not as good as A Separation, Farhadi’s new film succeeds once again in making us think about the way events are interpreted. It’s never sugary like the occasionally similar What Maisie Knew, but never bleak thanks to Farhadi’s sense of humanity. His interest in families and the way adults’ behaviour affects children is thought-provoking, while his brilliantly drawn characters allow us to believe in the somewhat contrived narrative.