Movie Reviews
3:48 pm
Thu December 19, 2013

From An Oscar Winner, A 'Past' Still Hauntingly Present

Originally published on Sat December 21, 2013 3:46 pm

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi came to international attention last year when his film A Separation won the Oscar for best foreign language film. His latest picture, The Past, has been showered with awards, too — at the Cannes Film Festival and from critics groups in the U.S. I saw The Past in September at the Toronto Film Festival, and it has haunted me ever since.

The film starts with a telling setup for all the miscues that will follow: We're in the international arrivals area of a Paris airport, with Marie (Berenice Bejo) waiting on one side of a partition, her husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving on the other. Communication is all but impossible through the glass wall that separates them, yet before he's even seen her, she's already lying to him — slipping a brace off her wrist so he won't see that she's injured.

When he finally spots her, he smiles, and comes to the other side of the glass. They still can't communicate, but somehow they do. Clearly a loving couple, you figure, utterly in sync, miming greetings since they can't hear each other.

And their easy partnering continues on the drive home in the rain, when the problem with her wrist becomes obvious, and he shifts the gears as she drives. But by that time they're also sniping at each other, trading little digs and glares. Only later do you discover he's flown in from Tehran to sign divorce papers. Not quite as in sync as they appeared. Is there something unfinished between them?

Bejo, Oscar-nominated for her silent performance in The Artist two years ago, is noisier here as a Frenchwoman caught between two men, three children and more complications than it would make any sense to try to explain.

Writer-director Farhadi lets the audience see where communication has faltered and what that's meant to Marie and the folks around her — Ahmad, plus her new love, Samir (Tahar Rahim) — both sensitive, both problem solvers by temperament, but caught in situations where fixes may not exist. Also the kids, damaged by the decisions their elders are making, but in unexpected ways responsible for those decisions.

As the director did in A Separation, he allows information to emerge in bits and snatches — always keeping you aware of the stepfamily dynamics and social dynamics that rule their lives. They're all outside the French mainstream, their home butting up against a railway line as if to show that if they're on the right side of the tracks, it's just barely.

And as they struggle with where they are now, and try to learn from, or cling to, or let go of the past — their story becomes so surprising, and so emotionally resonant that it's hard to let these characters go. The last 30 seconds of the film — wrenching, startling, utterly transformative of everything that precedes them — has haunted me for months. The Past will, I'm guessing, haunt me for years. (Recommended)

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has a follow-up to last year's Oscar-winning foreign language film "The Separation." The new movie is called "The Past," and it, too, is winning awards and plaudits at film festivals around the world. Our critic, Bob Mondello, say "The Past" in September at the Toronto film festival and he says it's haunted him ever since.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The film starts with a nifty setup for all the miscues that will follow: The international arrivals gate of a Paris airport, with Marie waiting on one side of a glass partition, her husband, Ahmad arriving on the other. Communication is all but impossible through that glass wall and yet before he's even seen her, she's already lying to him, slipping a brace off her wrist so he won't see that she's injured.

When he finally spots her, he smiles, and comes to the other side of the glass. They still can't communicate, but somehow they do. Clearly a loving couple, you figure, utterly in sync, miming greetings since they can't hear each other. And their easy partnering continues on the drive home in the rain, when the problem with her wrist becomes obvious, and he shifts the gears as she drives.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE PAST")

BERENICE BEJO: (As Marie) (speaking foreign language)

MONDELLO: But by that time, they're also sniping at each other,

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE PART")

BEJO: (As Marie) (speaking foreign language)

MONDELLO: Little digs and glares. Only later do you discover he's flown in from Tehran to sign divorce papers. Not quite as in sync as they appeared. Is there something unfinished between them? Actress Berenice Bejo, Oscar-nominated for her silent performance in "The Artist" two years ago, is noisier here...

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "THE PART")

BEJO: (As Marie) (speaking foreign language)

A Frenchwoman caught between two men, three children and more complications than it would make any sense to try to explain. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi lets the audience see where communication has faltered and what that's meant to Marie and the folks around her, Ahmad, plus her new love, Samir, both sensitive, both problem solvers by temperament, but caught in situations where fixes may not exist. Also the kids, damaged by the decisions their elders are making, but in unexpected ways responsible for those decisions.

MONDELLO: As the director did in "A Separation," he allows information to emerge in bits and snatches, always keeping you aware of the stepfamily dynamics and social dynamics that rule their lives. They're all outside the French mainstream, their home butting up against a railway line as if to show that if they're on the right side of the tracks, it's just barely.

And as they struggle with where they are now, and try to learn from, or cling to, or let go of the past, their story becomes so surprising, and so emotionally resonant, it's hard to let these characters go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: The last 30 seconds of the film, wrenching, startling, utterly transformative of everything that precedes them, has haunted me for months. "The Past" will, I'm guessing, haunt me for years. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.