Why would anyone want to go to the cinema to watch the frail outgrowth of the future suffocated under the weight of the past, and finally to be reminded, because the characters cannot be dismissed as bad or even unsympathetic, that there is something in them of ourselves? In his last film, A Separation, the intensity of Asghar Farhadi’s regard and the fineness of the performances made a small tale of family conflict and suspicion set in a few indoor locations in the Islamic Republic of Iran seem vitally important to audiences around the world. In 2012 it won the Oscar for best foreign language film. The Iranian director’s new film, The Past, has similar qualities, and ensemble acting of such a high standard that one quite forgets that Farhadi, like the characters he writes, is manipulating us, pulling us toward his recumbent pole.
Around the middle of The Past, a scene of moral instruction plays out in a tumbledown home in a Paris suburb. A house guest, Ahmad, has bought presents for the two small children living there, Fouad and Léa, but the man of the house, Samir, has caught Léa going into Ahmad’s suitcase to open the gifts, and insists that they apologize. Samir’s partner, Marie, looks on as Samir explains to Fouad that not to have instigated the theft is no excuse; Fouad was there when Léa went into the suitcase, and therefore shares the blame. Fouad, a curly-haired little imp for whom the word tetu, or headstrong, might have been invented, flashes defiance, but his longing to open the brightly wrapped parcel proves all-conquering. At length he follows Léa’s lead and mutters an apology.
It’s the kind of satisfying event that happens a million times a day in homes around the world, as parents impart notions of decency to their children, and yet, watching The Past, we are uncomfortably aware that the moral pulpit occupied by Samir, Marie, and Ahmad is so rickety as to turn their efforts to parody. Fouad (Elyes Aguis) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), alert beyond their years—as the children in Farhadi’s films generally are—seem to realize this too. Back in the bedroom they share, Léa upbraids Fouad for not owning up to the fact that it was he who told her that the suitcase was open in the first place. “I know why you’re upset,” she adds slyly. “It’s because you didn’t get a helicopter. You got coloring pencils.”
The three adults, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), Marie (Bérénice Béjo, of The Artist), and Samir (Tahar Rahim), have come together with the aim of rearranging their relations and making a better future for all. Ahmad is Marie’s estranged husband, returned after four years in order to complete their divorce, but, finding himself usurped by Samir, Marie’s new love, his every action and word convey opposing desires: to facilitate Marie’s new life, and to sabotage it. Marie also betrays confusion. She could have booked Ahmad into a hotel, protecting the home she now shares with Samir, but instead she has invited him to stay with them, as if willing him to make mischief with her feelings, jumpy and uncertain, toward her new man.
And this is what Ahmad does, as he flaunts his past mastery of the place, fixing the sink and encouraging the affection that Marie’s children, Léa and her older sister, Lucie (Fouad is Samir’s son), still feel toward him. The trio spar awkwardly through the house’s poky rooms, probing almost involuntarily at each other’s frailties. The old color of this room was better, was it not? Ahmad observes with calculated tactlessness. In the morning Marie asks Ahmad if he has had breakfast; Samir thinks she is addressing him, and replies, “Not yet.”
Not that this is an orthodox ménage a trois; there is a fourth, a pole in whose invisible field all the characters are somehow aligned. This is Samir’s wife Celine, who has been lying in a coma these past eight months after swallowing detergent. The possibility that Celine might have found out about Samir’s love for Marie, hardening an existing depression into suicidal resolution, weighs on the new couple as they prepare for life together, with Samir’s child growing in Marie’s belly. Later it emerges that both Marie’s elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), and Naima (Sabrina Ouazani), an employee of Samir at his dry-cleaning business (Sabrina Ouazani), may also have a share of responsibility for Celine’s current, life-supported limbo, through a combination of malice and misadventure. No one is blameless.
Farhadi seems to enjoy casting beautiful actresses—Leyla Hatami in A Separation, and now Béjo—and then making us forget their beauty, degrading them with their unhappiness and the ineptitude of their actions. Everyone becomes hypnotically normal under his gaze, and this is why one ends up feeling so intensely for his characters. And, for all the superb performances—at last year’s Cannes film festival Bejo deservedly won the award for Best Actress for her depiction of Marie—these are his characters, not only because Farhadi is a filmmaker in the most complete sense, in that he conceives his films, writes, and directs them, but also because his pitiless vision of humanity is one that we have come to recognize.
To make The Past, Farhadi spent two years in France, a country whose language he knows imperfectly, depending on translators throughout. The obvious explanation for this perverse course of action is that he wanted freedom from the Iranian censor—to set up his camera on any boulevard without fear of the police intervening or the Ministry of Culture revoking his permit. (Farhadi’s permit was revoked for a time during the shooting of A Separation, after he expressed his sympathy for Iranian actors and directors who had been banned from working for political reasons.) But as with Farhadi’s films, so with Farhadi: the pat answer doesn’t convince. The Past does not revel in the physical freedoms of France; it takes place for the most part in a few rooms in two buildings, while the rain pounds down outside (a wry aside on European weather).
And yet, there are clearly some aspects of France that do not exist in Iran, and that appealed to Farhadi’s creativity. The first is the country’s multiethnic, multicultural character. Marie is a Frenchwoman of Catholic background, while Ahmad and Samir are Middle Eastern Muslims—the former, a recent arrival from Iran, the latter, an assimilated North African. Then there is the regulation of sexual and emotional relationships through the law and social censure; compared to Iran, there is none. Lucie, Marie’s teenage daughter, is fed up with her mother’s inability to settle down with a man and stick with him. Fouad and Léa squabble like siblings but in fact they are not even step-siblings, and there is no guarantee that their respective parents will stay together. Indeed, Marie could end up with either Samir or Ahmad, or neither.
In the chanciness of these relationships, and their transience, many Muslims may recognize the moral failings of the West—spurious freedoms that bring only unhappiness. For Farhadi, whatever his private thoughts, the West’s deregulation is instrumental, an opportunity to get into complicated emotional ambiguities, encroachments, and compounds. And, unlike in A Separation, God is entirely absent from The Past.
Typically, it’s the youngest—and, by implication, the least damaged—of the film’s characters that has the clearest and most optimistic grasp on events. Fouad is upset when his father takes him away from Marie’s house near the film’s end; Samir had promised that this would be his home forever. There is a powerful scene in a metro station, when Fouad asks why his mother is being kept alive in the hospital. Samir equivocates, “We don’t know if she wants to live like that or if she wants to die.” But Samir misses his wife; he is holding out for a miracle.
“She wanted to die,” Fouad says decisively. “It’s why she killed herself.” And to this bald statement of fact, Samir has no answer. A blonde woman’s motionless body in a sun-drenched hospital room; it’s the reason for all the misery. The little boy can see it. Why can nobody else?
Asghar Farhadi’s The Past will be released in selected theaters across the US on February 28.