Give Asghar Farhadi a piece of soap opera material and he’ll more than likely turn it into a riveting, hand-over-mouth domestic drama. He who gave us the powerhouse, Oscar-winning A Separation, which is in my books one of the most compelling, claustrophobic films ever made about the great divides in our modern society, returns to similar themes in The Past – heralded as a solid contender for the Palme D’or come Sunday. As for myself, I’m not entirely convinced of this claim. Whilst nonetheless meticulously structured and dramatically enthralling in parts, it doesn’t pack the same punch as A Separation did.
You’ll forgive Farhadi for repeating himself in The Past. The film mines intelligent, human conflict out of a script that’s essentially, in bare bones, a veritable melodrama but with little political and cultural subtext that A Separation was very rich with. There’s divorce, half-hearted affairs, befuddled children, suicide and lead characters that suffer with conscience, culpability and guilt. It’s strong and illuminating when Farhadi focusses on the truth-baring nature of the parents’ messy lives, their past entanglements making their present quite a hell to live with, and the involvement of children as they see the adults around them losing their wits as the artefacts of their actions unspool before them. But it’s somehow uninvolving when it comes to Farhadi pushing audience sympathy, with a script that uses a deux ex machina – a suicide of a character, which has the air contrivance in it.
Bérénice Bejo stands out with a tremendous performance, depicting a woman who cannot move back, move on and quite emotionally stuck between the middle of two men, bookending her past and present, and the other woman who makes things even more complicated. The kids are terrific, too, whose scenes have the strongest value in the film – barely understanding responsibility and the consequences of their actions. When Farhadi studies the humanities of his characters and the foibles of their lives, The Past emerges as an assured, occasionally moving, rewarding dramatic experience.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Asghar Farhadi | CAST: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa | SCREENPLAY: Asghar Farhadi | PRODUCER: Memento Films | RUNNING-TIME: 130 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: France