The Past

February 15, 2014
Bérénice Bejo as Marie in 'The Past', 2013
Bérénice Bejo as Marie in 'The Past', 2013

To the best of my knowledge there is not a single ten minute lesbian sex scene in the entire corpus of Iranian cinema. For films made in Iran even the simplest questions about sex, religion or morality can fall foul of the censors. The paradox is that these strictures have produced a body of work that is notable for its ingenuity of story-telling, depth of characterisation, and an absence of the gimmickry which has become such a vice for directors around the world.

Asghar Farhadi shot to prominence when his film, A Separation, won the 2012 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film. The most notable feature of that movie was Farhadi’s ability to craft a powerful, universally relevant story from the materials of everyday life in Tehran. He also demonstrated a remarkable delicacy in the way he dealt with the thousand small dilemmas of what could and could not be shown.

The Past is a French-Italian co-production set in Paris, which has given Farhadi a greater freedom of movement. While most viewers will feel there is nothing here that would offend sensibilities in his homleand, this would be to underestimate the rigid moral codes enforced by the authorities.

Bérénice Bejo, last seen as Peppy Miller in The Artist (2011), is Marie, a working mother bringing up two daughters. She is playing host to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), her estranged husband, who has returned from Iran to finalise a divorce. There is now a new man in Marie’s life – Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has a small son of his own.

The tangle of relationships is even more complicated than it first appears. Marie’s daughters, Lucie and Léa, hail from a first marriage, before she met Ahmad. Samir is constrained by the fact that his wife, Céline, lies in a coma after a failed suicide attempt. This is proving traumatic for the elder daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), now in her mid-teens, who resents the intrusion of Samir into the family.

Despite being weighed down by his memories, Ahmad tries to deal with the situation in a calm, compassionate manner. He has a good relationship with Lucie and sets out to convince her to accept the new arrangements. Samir is disturbed by Ahmad’s presence but also tries to act in a constructive way. Marie is more unstable, and relations between mother and daughter grow increasingly fraught.

The story, told in a langauge that Farhadi barely speaks, unfolds with a convincing realism and uniformly excellent performances. Nothing is over-stated or underlined by needless music. The characters’ emotions are laid bare, but every one of them tries to keep their most extreme feelings in check. There is an air of melancholy and underlying tension. Gradually the tale evolves into the kind of mystery one might find in a novel by Georges Simenon.

The past weighs heavily on all the characters, who carry their personal burdens of guilt and betrayal. Ahmad feels that he has failed Marie and the girls, but knows he cannot feel at home in France. Samir feels jealousy over the relationship Ahmad once had with Marie, and the closeness that still exists between Ahmad and her children, while he remains an alien presence. He can’t fully commit to Marie, however, while his wife lies in the hospital on life support, with the circumstances of her suicide attempt still unclear.

The past is a source of pain to be endured stoically in the present. It is ubiquitous and inescapable. Love may have died between Marie and Ahmad, but the memory lingers, causing feelings of regret. For his part, Samir is forced to replay the events of his own marriage, to see what went wrong. The children are a problem for everyone because there is no telling what damage is being inflicted on them by the conflicts engulfing their parents.

Ahmad has the possibility of escape, but his pangs of conscience will travel with him. He has become an important part of Lucie’s life and feels he has let her down. Only by confronting their past actions can the characters reach an accommodation with their new arrangements, but it will always be a truce rather than a victory. In the background lies the unconscious Céline. She is a symbol of the corrosive power of the past, functionally dead but always alive, casting a spell on everyone.

The Past
France/Iran, rated M
130 mins
Written & directed by Asghar Farhadi; starring Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Sabrina Ouazani

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15 February, 2014.