Cannes Review: 'The Past' is an intimate but exacting breakdown of several separations
CANNES - For Iranian auteur Asghar Farhadi, following up the near-unanimous acclaim of his Oscar-winning 2011 film "A Separation" with a similarly articulate dramatic study of, well, separation was either the most foolhardy thing he could do -- or the smartest. An intricately knotted, almost exhaustingly even-handed examination of tensions and untruths in a trio of marriages -- one past, one future and one stuck in a purgatorial present -- "The Past" further showcases Farhadi's dexterity as a dramatist of uncommon perspicacity and fairness.
If that's a dangerous gift to take for granted, Farhadi's previous films have brought us close to that point; the response of "The Past," his first film set and shot outside his homeland, is to see if said gift can flourish outside his usual cultural context. The answer is a qualified yes: where fractious Iranian politics complicated the upscale relationship drama of "A Separation" and its similarly impressive predecessor "About Elly," "The Past" hooks its audience without that degree of subtext. That may make it a thinner accomplishment by a certain yardstick, but good storytelling is good storytelling: whether he chooses to return home or not, "The Past" proves that Farhadi's international career is ready for takeoff.
In a film where pretty much every other unhappy secret is laid on the table at some point, we never learn quite what motivated the break-up from which everything else in this catalogue of bruised and broken relationships spirals. It's been four years since Marie-Anne (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) called their marriage a day; the film opens on their first meeting since the initial parting. It's a civil, brittle reunion in which the polite acknowledgement of surface change (she's taken up smoking, his hairline has notably receded) stands in for roughly unfinished business. The suggestion is that it was an abrupt withdrawal on Ahmad's part as he fled Paris for his native Iran, leaving Marie-Anne a single mother to her two young daughters from her first marriage -- a largely unacknowledged ghost of a heartbreak in a narrative that doesn't want for them.
Later in the film, Ahmad teeters on the edge of telling Marie-Anne why he left, a confession that could well lend Farhadi's script a political dimension. The words never come out; she professes not to care. She may or may not be lying, but it's water under the bridge compared to the tumultuous emotional rapids the two find themselves negotiating with her new live-in lover Samir (Tahar Rahim) -- a marital triangle too preoccupied with additional, problematic third parties for standard-issue jealousy to rear its head.