Credit: Film Images

The Past

If you had gone to see every single one of the acclaimed movies from Iran that have played in the U.S. since the mid-’90s — the lyrically subdued Abbas Kiarostami films, like Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry, that were hailed at the time as minimalist masterpieces; the feminist political parable The Circle; scrappy fables like The White Balloon, Children of Heaven, and A Time for Drunken Horses; the enchantingly colorful woven rug of a movie Gabbeh — it would be perfectly reasonable for you to come away from that experience thinking that Iran is a land of people who live in the countryside and have simple, non-intellectual jobs, who don’t talk very much, and, what’s more, that their extreme verbal reticence expresses a kind of emotional simplicity as well. It was widely understood, and discussed in the press, that the holy quietude of Iranian cinema was, in part, a tactical way of getting around the watchful eye of the country’s theocratic regime, a method of delivering political statements almost literally between the lines. Nevertheless, going to an Iranian movie often made it feel as if you were going back in time, watching characters almost metaphysically removed from the roiling complexities of the contemporary world.

And then came A Separation. Part of the catharsis of Asghar Farhadi’s brilliant 2011 breakthrough movie is that it was set amid the urban hubbub of Tehran, and its characters, lost in a complicated maze of marital strife, had anger, and layers, and many, many words. They had sound and fury. In other words, they were just like us. That may seem a patronizing way to put it, but I think the fantastic shock of recognition delivered by A Separation was a common experience for the American audiences who saw it. I’d go further, in fact, and argue that the real patronization was there in the almost fetishistic overpraise of Iranian cinema during the last 20 years. These aesthetically beguiling but frequently quaint and (I would argue) often limited movies were revered far too much for their “purity” — for the very qualities that made them seem distant from the hurly-burly of Western experience. A Separation gave the lie to all that. It said: An Iranian film doesn’t need to be celebrated for being some lovely and exotic peasant wall hanging. If there’s greatness in it, it’s a greatness as direct and turbulent and forceful as in any other movie.

A Separation did, indeed, have greatness in it, but since most of us weren’t familiar with Farhadi’s other work, the prospect of seeing his new movie, The Past, which premiered at Cannes yesterday, carried its own kind of suspense. Would it be as powerful as A Separation? Would it even be the same kind of movie? Farhadi had made the single best film from Iran that I’ve ever seen (with the sole exception of Kiarostami’s thrillingly elaborate Close-Up, a 1990 movie that barely got released in the U.S.). So the stakes for this one were high.

The movie, I’m happy to report, lived up to my fevered expectations. The Past is hugely ambitious — it’s Farhadi seizing his moment — yet it’s also another wrenchingly intimate tale of domestic turmoil that somehow has the charged tension of a thriller. Farhadi has invented a completely original way of fusing the traditions of neorealism and the page-turning criminal mystery. It makes his movies a little hard to discuss, because to reveal almost any plot point from The Past after about the opening half hour would essentially be a spoiler. The movie is structured like an onion that keeps shedding layers to reveal the truth within.

From the opening shots, Farhadi lets us know that he’s making a spiritual companion piece to A Separation. A woman is meeting a man at an airport, but a glass wall stands between them, and even as they “talk” through the glass, we can’t hear them. They are, in every sense, separate, and Ali Mosaffa, the actor in question, looks so much like Payman Maadi, the lead actor from A Separation, that for a moment I did a double take and wondered: Is this the same couple? Are we watching the sequel — A Reunification? But that’s also because it took me a moment to recognize Bérénice Bejo, the Argentinian-born actress best known for her role as the silent-movie flapper of The Artist.

Bejo plays Marie, a French woman living in a run-down Paris suburb, and Mosaffa is Ahmad, her estranged Iranian husband, who has just arrived from Tehran so that the two can offically get their divorce. When Ahmad, who seems to be a gentle soul, inquires with an intensive sadness about “Léa” and “Lucie,” we assume that they’re his daughters, but it turns out that both Marie’s children — one a teenager, one younger — have other fathers, each long vanished. She and Ahmad are friendly for about five minutes before their old tensions begin to flair. And that’s before he even arrives at the home where he lived for six years and learns that another man has moved in: Samir (Tahar Rahim), a somewhat younger lover whom Marie plans to marry, though he’s dealing with a domestic trauma of his own. Samir is something of a jerk, though a jerk capable of tenderness, and the handsome Tahar Rahim (pictured above, along with Bejo) plays him with the air of a colder Antonio Banderas.

Like A Separation, The Past presents us with what appears to be a highly specific, finite, and readable situation, but then, as it’s shaded in with new details, with the revelation of the history that has led up to it, the reality changes. Watching Farhadi’s movies, you feel like you’re a detective, piecing together not just “what happened” — though you want to know that too — but the inner meaning of what you’re seeing. He takes small, seemingly inconsequential events (the spilling of a paint can, a girl staying out too late) and teases them into defining motifs in a supremely unpredictable drama. The question of whether e-mails from an adulterous affair were secretly forwarded, or (if so) received, or (if so) what the consequences were here takes on the quality of a CIA op gone wrong. We expect there to be friction between Ahmad and Samir, and there is, but the key to Ali Mosaffa’s superb performance is that Ahmad isn’t ruled by the bitterness that ended his marriage. Marie, on the other hand, is. Bérénice Bejo was so adorable in The Artist, and is so lovely and sensually vivid here, that it registers as a slow jolt how desperate and angry and high-strung Marie is. She wants and wants and wants, yet she’s in hiding from the consequences of her actions.

The way that the plot of The Past keeps churning, turning, revealing new angles almost makes it seem like one of those Babel-style Rubik’s Cube narratives, only instead of hopping around the globe, Farhadi unfolds his tale in about seven rooms. The movie eases back and forth between Marie’s cramped, messy house, the Paris pharmacy and dry-cleaner where she and Samir (respectively) work, and several other locales, but we never know just where it’s heading, because the real place the movie is fixated on is the past — the events that people keep trying to pretend are behind them. In the magnificent and haunting final scene, a character we never expected to hear from sheds a single tear, and she seems to be crying for all of us who are channeling the past through the present more than we could ever control or even know.

Owen’s other posts from Cannes:

The Past
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