Marie has not seen her husband Ahmed for four years. At the airport, on the other side of a glass wall, she smiles and waves at him with a bandaged hand. At first he does not see her, and in the moments that follow, we perceive feelings of trepidation behind her smiling mask. She checks herself, and begins to wave with the other hand. It is difficult to tell what both of them really feel upon seeing each other after so long, and Ahmed struggles as they try to communicate through the glass, smiling guardedly at each other.
This is, as we discover, only the first of the difficulties these characters will have in trying to communicate. Ahmed moved to Iran after he and his wife separated, and Marie has now asked him to come to Paris in order to finalise their divorce. Marie is currently in a relationship with Samir, a dry-cleaner working nearby, and he and his young son Fouad have moved in with Marie and her children – Lucie (who has recently started causing problems for her mother) and her younger sister Léa. Marie has failed to tell Ahmed this, and has not booked Ahmed a hotel, instead insisting that he stay with them, so that he can talk to Lucie and try to find out what is wrong with her. We discover that Marie asked him to come once before to Paris in order to settle the divorce, a journey which he cancelled. Ahmed, in turn, feels awkward about having to share a room with another man’s son, and about the changes that are in the process of being made in the house where he used to live with Marie (the characters literally have to mind how they step, for fear of disturbing the paint). These details are only preliminary, and may not, you might think, be very important to the development of the plot. And yet they are established so carefully, so early in the film, to set up a delicate atmosphere of emotional tension, providing the basis for the drama that slowly ensues.
I find it frightening to think how long it would have taken for Asghar Farhadi’s films to reach a UK audience had he not won the Golden Bear in 2011 for ‘A Separation’. Only now are his previous films being released. ‘About Elly’ was arrived in UK cinemas, … years after its international premiere, and ‘Fireworks Wednesday’ has only very recently followed it; there are still more to come. At a time when even some of the best films subjugate their characters and plots to predictable formulas, Farhadi’s films are a marvel.
Lesser directors handling this sort of material would throw in the towel relatively early on, falling back on formulaic sentiment and easy catharsis in order to manipulate the audience’s emotions. Farhadi cares too much about his characters for that kind of cop-out, and this is perhaps why I am convinced that he is incapable of making a terrible film. All of his films are technically accomplished, and yet the cinematography never draws attention to itself. Even the weather in this film is usually overcast – punctuated by sudden downpours (providing obvious analogies with the development of the plot itself). Farhadi combines the technical ability of Hitchcock with the close observation and cultural awareness of the Japanese masters, Ozu and Mizoguchi. It is a unique hybrid.
They are all slow-burning character pieces, establishing characters and their relationships very carefully, before something terrible occurs and the tensions within those relationships rear their ugly heads with renewed force. ‘The Past’ may very well be Farhadi’s most sophisticated creation, particularly in terms of writing. It differs from his previous work insofar as the monumental event which so much of the tension ostensibly revolves around happened (you guessed it) in the past. The audience, importantly, never see it. The major undercurrents of tension, therefore, have already been in play long before the film begins, and it is Ahmed’s arrival for what should be a perfunctory signing of papers which causes these tensions to come to the surface.
I say it is important that the past event in question is never seen. Truth and guilt are major themes in all of Farhadi’s work, and the complexities surrounding these themes arise from subjective distortions of the truth. The emotions of his characters are buried, and only come to light peace-meal throughout his films – and even then, we can never be completely sure of them. This kind of film-making requires a strong cast – you may see films of Farhadi’s that are worse comparatively than others, but you will never see a badly-acted film with his name attached. The three leads here – Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim and Ali Mosaffa – all put in brilliantly restrained performances; when their tempers flare, the result is gut-wrenching. Bejo in particular puts in her finest performance to date, deservedly winning Best Actress at Cannes last year. The children are equally mesmeric – Elyes Aguis often steals the show as Fouad, a conflicted and vulnerable young boy.
At the end of his films, little is resolved. What truths the characters know are revealed, but Farhadi is wise about truth and morality. Truth can only be taken so far before we begin to hit murky grey areas. His characters get themselves into complicated moral entanglements, and Farhadi does not judge or try to help them – he observes, and then leaves it up to us to make sense of where we stand. One of the difficulties his characters face in this film lies in trying to deduce what a person felt at a specific moment in their past, as their guilt festers well into the present. The final scene may hint at an answer to some of our questions, but what it will mean for the characters remains ambiguous.