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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 7 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 06
Emotionally complex Past journeys into familial pain
Arts & Entertainment
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Emotionally complex Past journeys into familial pain

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE PAST Now playing

If you've seen Asghar Farhadi's Academy Award-winning A Separation, then you know going into his latest drama, The Past (Le Passé), that as mundane and as typical as things might look on the surface, underneath it is anything but. A familial mystery of regret, lies, love, longing and desire, the movie is a reserved marvel of human understanding and insight building to a striking conclusion of emotional majesty, the truths uncovered not so much surprising as they are heartrendingly universal.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come to Paris to finalize the divorce between he and his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo). They've been separated for four years, so the pain of their union coming to an end has dulled over that time. But that doesn't mean Ahmad is any less surprised when he discovers Marie is in a serious relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), even more so when she insists he stay with them in their home instead of checking into a hotel.

He lands inside what can only be described as a human hornet's nest, the cacophony of noise and recriminations running throughout the household startling. This is most obvious as it concerns 16-year-old daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), so upset at her mother she can barely stay more than a few minutes inside the same room with her. Marie asks Ahmad if he wouldn't mind getting to the bottom of what is going on, hoping he'll use his tools as a successful psychologist to help facilitate peace and tranquility back into the household.

The Iranian filmmaker doesn't believe in excess, doesn't like to wallow in melodramatic histrionics, instead allowing emotions to bubble forth with a natural, sometimes debilitating, grace that's heavenly. While red herrings abound in Ahmad's quest to ascertain the truth, the reality is that no one here is innocent or clear of blame, the ties that bind these disparate family members together more concrete than they initially appear.

Unlike A Separation, some of the seams connecting everything together in The Past do show a little, while plot points hinting at child abuse and neglect are a little more obvious and heavy-handed than necessary. But the intricacies of Farhadi's screenwriting are wondrous most of the time, the final third of the film a master class of narrative plot dynamics that are exhilarating. The filmmaker had me in the palm of his hand so completely I never wanted to leave, the shattering nature of the emotions being shared capturing me body and soul.

Bejo is genius. There's a reason she won the Best Actress prize over Blue is the Warmest Color dynamo Adèle Exarchopolous at May's Cannes Film Festival, her performance as Marie never what you expect it to be, going to places of startling depth and imagination that are dazzling. She does remarkable work with zero artifice, never taking the easy way out, instead delivering a vibrant, lived-in portrait allowing the simplest act to speak oceans of truth. It's masterful, proving her Oscar nod for The Artist was far from a fluke and that many more moments of dramatic brilliance are sure to be forthcoming.

But she isn't the only one who is extraordinary. Mosaffa, Rahim, Burlet and young Elyes Aguis (another one of Samir's children who holds vital clues as to what is going on) give first-rate, exquisitely complicated performances, coming together as a single unit to make sure all the themes buried within Farhadi's script come to life. Mosaffa, in particular, is glorious as the investigative ex-husband-to-be, his culpability in what is going on not immediately apparent yet brought forth with remarkable, uncomplicated clarity when things come to a head.

Farhadi is fast becoming one of the most gifted dramatic storytellers working today. He brings forth films that feel immediate, existing in the here and now in ways that are naturally refined and intimately authentic. If The Past doesn't quite rise to the same heights of A Separation that doesn't make the movie any less stupendous, and at the end of the day this is another motion picture worthy of every bit of the acclaim already thrust upon it.

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