This is my review of The Past [DVD].
Expectations raised by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s earlier film, “The Separation” are not disappointed. “The Past” is an absorbing, subtle and complex drama of relationships set in the everyday world of a Parisian suburb where ordinary people have to juggle the needs of work and childcare with sorting out their emotional lives. Shifting between the characters’ different perspectives, it manages to arouse empathy for them all in the process. Even with subtitles, the dialogue is excellent, reminding me of a very accessible Pinter play.
For reasons which are never fully explained, four years previously Iranian Ahmed left his French pharmacist wife Marie and her two daughters with whom he gets on well, although he is not their father. The film opens with his return to Paris at Marie’s request to sign their divorce papers. Yet it is clear from the outset that, although they both regard their marriage as over, a natural intimacy between them still remains, they know each other so well. Marie can instruct Ahmed to help her drive by changing gear, since her arm is too painful for this. She even asks him to find out what is bugging her teenage daughter Lucie. It is not surprising that Marie’s new lover Samir feels resentful and excluded. He is also trapped in the tragic effects of an ill-considered action taken by his wife, and the wonderfully acted scenes of his small son witnessing the drama of dysfunctional adult relationships and trying to make sense of them are poignant in the extreme. The little boy continually tries to apply the rules he has just learned only to find that some new factor contradicts them. Having learned the need to apologise for his bad behaviour, he then has to grasp that some adult breaches are simply too grave to be pardoned.
Despite the need to move on, the past creates a web of relationships, obligations and consequences of earlier actions which cannot be escaped. To what extent are we culpable if others misconstrue what we do or cannot accept our acts of selfishness? Is it necessary to confess to behaviour which has caused suffering, or are white lies sometimes the least damaging policy? Ahmed at times seems like living proof that “the way to hell is paid with good intentions” since his insistence on honesty risks making matters worse.
Rather like real life, the pain and anguish in this film are made bearable by touches of humour, curiosity as to how the plot will reveal its twists, the consistent high quality of the acting – the children’s performances are very realistic – the minutely observed details of the domestic scenes, and moments capturing the joy of living, as when Ahmed serves up his mouth-watering traditional Iranian dishes.