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The beautifully crafted script of The Past (Le passé) (2013), from its director Asghar Farhadi, reminds of so many strands of literature of the best kind, and all in a very good way (which is because the themes have rung down the ages on account of the issues that our lives together throw up).
Amongst them are : Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (and probably Ghosts), Chekhov in Uncle Vanya (or aspects of The Cherry Orchard, Death and the Maiden (1994) (adapted from Ariel Dorfman’s play), much of Michael Haneke’s cinematic work (not least Hidden (Caché) (2005), or Amour (2012)), to name some principal ones. (And it is only in the title that it bears any relation to Miranda July’s The Future (2011) (even if that film tried something of this kind*) !)
Casting, delivery, posture, gesture, editing – there is nothing to fault here, and the latter, with the other ingredients, means that there is never a moment slack at the wrong time, but, equally, we will be lingeringly with two men who have nothing to say to each other, and keenly, if awkwardly, wonder which will break by uttering something first, or abandoning the stage.
Marie-Anne (or Marie) is a far worthier role for Bérénice Bejo than that of Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), and one where she can play a part that does not seem a caricature of itself. The Past also has Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad) and Tahar Rahim (Samir) along the other two sides of what is its often triangular heart, which is true all the time, because the centre of what we see is a form whose shape and structure change with time.
The presentation may be linear, but only in the way that, say, one of those Ibsen plays is. Thus, from the first moment when Marie spots Ahmad the other side of a glass partition that separates Arrivals from Baggage Reclamation and tries to attach his attention (before tellingly speaking to him through the transparent obstacle), we find that the past is an all-too-visible barrier in the reactions that are evoked.
In reacting to those three in this film who are sixteen or younger, it could be that acceptable discipline is viewed differently in France, but the way in which Marie and (to a lesser extent) Samir behave towards them in some scenes will shock. When, straight afterwards, Samir takes the time to listen to his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) and hear what he says, he comes to a better understanding in a very moving moment together, and Fouad and he have then dynamically changed their positions in relation to each other (and, therefore, regarding the others).
Léa (Jeanne Jestin), who seems younger, has less of a role, but, when she challenges Fouad about the account of things that he gave to Marie earlier, the truth of their positions resonates. Likewise, Marie’s fury towards Lucie (Pauline Burlet, whose plausibility as Marie’s elder (16-year-old) daughter is undoubted) abates, as Ahmad knew that it would, but, as in a game of chess – where a player moving a piece can ‘reveal’ an attacking capability of another piece on his or her side, one answered question leads to another – much as steps in a dance (though, in literal terms, this is a piece of cinema that is refreshingly sparing in its score).
In The Past, there are references to depression, but they are no mere tokenistic ones, showing another experience in life that can drastically separate those having it from the world and from loved ones – which is not helped if family, friends, employers, and so on do not understand its capacity for suppression of feeling, even to the extent that nothing reaches through it or at all matters. For Farhadi’s dialogue shows that he knows what he is talking about, and includes scenes both when Marie reminds Ahmad of how it had been for him, and then when he, having remembered that time, talks to Lucie about what depression is like.
Depression is in this screenplay as an integral reflection of our lives, and so Ahmad’s restaurateur friend Shahryar (Babak Karimi), recognizing the pressures on Ahmad, points out to him that he does not belong in this place (he flew in from Tehran days before), here where the other barriers that, in a complex way, the film revolves are doubt, delusion and dilemmas.
Very subtly, without overplaying differences between West and East, Farhadi has Ahmad show that he can come alongside the others, relate to them, and help them to articulate and approach the fears that torment and threaten to overwhelm them. They kick and scream, and he may not always be right (mainly when talking about himself), but there is an empowering that they receive without necessarily appreciating that it came from outside them. However, as the ironic face of one of the impulses that can bring on (or heighten) depression, he is the sort of help to them that one senses that he could never be to himself when still in France.
Here, when Marie and he got soaked walking to the car, he does the right thing and offers to dry the hair at the back for her. However, he is distracted, and maybe he only offered because he thought that he should, and so ends up holding the drier in one place and burns her head – throughout, there are instances of people doing or saying something on the basis that it is expected (with Fouad a largely welcome change). Farhadi permits, amidst a narrative that takes us by surprise, these gentle moments of dramatic irony, when we momentarily see the course of things and smile, or snort with amusement.
This is a stunningly strong film and, agonize as one might that, under it all, it would fall apart and betray its promise, it disappoints in no respect. In short :
The Past is brilliant ! By which @THEAGENTAPSLEY means not yesteryear, but a masterpiece film just seen (once so far) at @CamPicturehouse !
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 9, 2014
* Another film that tried and, in other ways, spectacularly misjudged was the histrionic Dust on our Hearts (Staub auf unseren Herzen) (2012), complete with its own scene with paint...
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)