Berenice Bejo plays a woman caught in a headache in "The Past." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
'The Past' Director: Asghar Farhadi Stars: Berenice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa Rating: PG-13 4 (out of 5) Globes
Strangely, the modern world is lacking in classical-style dramatists who churn out works with the breadth and depth of a Henrik Ibsen or an Anton Chekhov. The closest we have is Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Someday soon his surprise hit “A Separation,” in which all-too-human mistakes lead to a series of increasingly troubling misunderstandings, will be a fixture of school curriculums. “The Past,” his hotly anticipated follow-up, probably won’t, which is not to say it’s a massive letdown. It’s a knottier piece, less satisfying and a little harder to sift through, even as if its cumulatively as gutting.
Like “A Separation,” it starts with a divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives from Iran to finish the paperwork with Marie (Berenice Bejo), his Parisian wife, with whom he parted ways four years prior. He arrives just in time to largely observe some major theatrics. Marie’s new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim, the star of “A Prophet”), is married, but his wife has been in a coma for months, following a mysterious suicide attempt. The details of this event slowly start to come to the surface, exacerbating a situation that’s left them and their angry kids unhappy.
Much of the action in “The Past” takes place — as the slightly precious title hints at — in the past. The lack of instant agency in the film makes the drama both compelling and slightly infuriating, as the story keeps building and twisting while making its points more obliquely. It lacks the grace and elegance of “A Separation,” being as it rests on the very slow parceling out of information that keeps reshaping our perception of events.
That’s not a bad thing, mind; “The Past” just lacks the instant satisfaction of its predecessor, requiring of the viewer more work to enjoy. It’s still very enjoyable moment to moment. Farhadi isn’t a writer who forgets visuals, though they can be a touch heavy; the opening uses a thick glass at an airport to literally separate Ahmad and Marie, making bluntly clear the emotional distance between them. But he’s a whiz at shooting in cramped apartments, where tiny rooms create both claustrophobia and little comfort zones for each character to retreat to when the burden of interaction becomes too much. Farhadi remains a great who knows how to craft little worlds that slowly come undone. But despite its performances and thoughtful camerawork, “The Past” is more enriching to piece together in your head after than it is while in front of you.