Review: The Past
The detective genre is, fittingly, a deceptive one: it’s all about solving a mystery, sure, and that makes sense, but the real mystery is never – and should never really be – who killed whom. It should be who people really are. What secrets do we hide and why? Asghar Farhadi’s involving, sensitive and suspenseful “Whydunit” is a better detective story than most. It’s about solving a series of emotional crimes for which, perhaps, no one can technically be convicted but whose victims are very hard to number.
A Separation’s Ali Mosaffa plays Ahmad, an Iranian man returning to his old home in France to finally sign his divorce papers with Marie, played by The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo. There’s a strange boy living at his old house, who has a mighty temper. Come to think of it, Marie has a mighty temper too. Her daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) doesn’t like to come home at night. Marie’s new fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim) doesn’t like the fact that Ahmad is staying with his new family, and there's something nobody knows about his comatose wife.
Ahmad seems like a decent enough guy. Ali Mosaffa certainly plays him as such. In fact, everyone seems decent enough. That’s part of the problem. Everyone is trying so hard to be the best person they can that they’re afraid to be genuine with each other. The emotional manipulations, capitulations and frustrations mount into a catacomb of tunnels that can only be navigated by someone from the outside who also cares enough to see what lies in their depths. And even then, Ahmad’s interest only goes so far, and The Past eventually lets others pick up his slack and solve the mysteries that mean the world to them, but don’t necessarily matter to the ex-husband who left for a damn good reason.
That reason, of course, is Bérénice Bejo, who turns in a particularly marvelous performance as a woman so thoroughly encased in stress, self-imposed and otherwise, that she bursts out of it in a wild temper at the slightest provocation. We should despise her for it. Lord knows we’d understand if her children did. But Bejo’s outbursts never ascend into hammy territory, nor does she ever cross a thick painted line into cruelty. Marie has a character flaw that hurts others, hurts herself, and Asghar Farhadi’s rich screenplay offers more than enough explanation to keep her sympathetic despite all that. Certainly Bejo is an exceptional enough actress to bring those nuances to life.
There are moments of shock in The Past, not at violence per se but at what we’re willing to do to each other, and by what we’re afraid they will do in return. The film preaches honesty and tenderness by illustrating dramatically, intriguingly, frantically what results from the opposite. That it makes for a fascinating story doesn’t undermine its tragedy, and Asghar Farhadi is never obtrusive enough to let his unusual detective yarn get wrapped up in overwhelming or hypnotic cinematic style. The hand of the storyteller is only obvious in that a story is being told, and expertly enough to keep us from thinking about him at all. We’re focused on his creations: a cast of impeccable characters and a world made both complicated and intense by what they have chosen to do within it.