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The Past - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Past
Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (2011) was a revelation: a rare view into the surprisingly familiar daily living of regular people in Tehran, as the backdrop to a deeply compelling story of a marriage that isn't working. Every ridiculously stereotypical idea Americans have of Iranians, it quietly defied, even without particular intention. It was a tough act to follow.

If The Past, Farhadi's new film, proves anything, it's that A Separation could not be bettered. Now the story takes place in France, with only one character having a clear connection to Tehran. It highlights the differences in cultures to a subtle degree, but as exotic as anyone might want to think France to be, the people and behaviors and culture here are all too familiar. It's still Western as opposed to Eastern.

With context not meaning nearly as much, that leaves the story itself, which is still tightly constructed and offers several plot twists that keep us on our toes. It borders on convoluted, but Farhadi keeps things clear. Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has asked her Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to come back to France to make final divorce arrangements. While this divorce holds absolute relevance, it is not the central aspect of the story here. It's one of many things, really, sort of coming to a head -- hence the film's title. But Marie and Ahmad still care about each other, and there is no particular drama between them.

Several extenuating circumstances complicate matters. First, Marie is the mother of two children, teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and little Léa (Jeanne Jestin), from her first husband, a character we never see. Ahmad is husband number two, but Marie is now living with Samir (Tahar Rahim), whom she's hoping to make husband #3, and his little boy Fouad (Elyes Aguis). The greater problem there is that Samir is still married, to a woman in a coma, due to an attempted suicide.

These and plenty more details are slowly revealed as The Past takes its time to put all the pieces together and provide motives for the behaviors of all these characters, particularly the teenage Lucie, who is burdened with a terrible secret. This is potentially the key to a swirling whirlwind of misunderstandings.

Although the settings shift occasionally (an airport here, a restaurant there), the story mostly takes place inside Marie's home. As broad as it sounds, Farhadi keeps it very intimate, with dialogue so well pointed that this film could easily work as a riveting stage play. The script, after all, is this movie's greatest strength. It keeps us guessing and provides satisfying surprises without ever quite being sensational.

I wish I could be as complimentary of the actors, who, while competent, often come across as strangely muted. A couple of scenes offer some genuine emotion, but the rest of the time these people seem a little strangely deadpan. Everything this French family deals with comes across as realistically chaotic in emotional scope -- broken families are patently normal in the Western world -- but that isn't always matched sufficiently by how they seem to handle it. This is a minor quibble; the slow burn of the story's hold on the viewer easily makes up for it, especially when a last-minute twist turns everything on its head.

It even takes a while to figure out which character is the one even deserving of our compassion, which alone elevates the movie's integrity. With the exception of the young children, these people all act in ways we understand, but which don't necessarily make us like them any better. In the end, Farhadi finds at least a sliver of humanity in all of them, which is all we're waiting for.

Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa grapple with THE PAST.

Overall: B+
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