Most of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past takes place in a house on the outskirts of Paris, and everything about the setting feels reflective of its dramatic situation. The house is in a constant state of renovation, with half-painted walls, busted plumbing, and beds shifted around and between rooms to make space for more guests than it can really accommodate. Outside, inter-city trains race by, rattling the windows, and serving as a continuous reminder of the way out. Fleeing is an idea central to the film — the way we try escape from the suffering caused by the relationships that bind us. And so is an idea of family and the home, the way our human investment in other people transcend biological and legal responsibilities.
The film’s main plot line involves Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo), a man and woman in the troughs of a divorce, whose marriage spoiled, in part, because Ahmad fled Paris for his homeland of Iran. Marie stayed, and in his absence took in a new lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim) a younger man who looks, to Ahmad’s unease, similar to him. Samir brought with him a troubled, tempestuous child, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Fouad’s tantrums electrify the first act of the film like shock therapy, suggesting that there is some unsaid trauma simmering beneath the pleasantries and caged emotions that greet Ahmad’s arrival.
What is unsaid, simply put, is what the title of Farhadi’s beautiful, elegiac, and engrossing film refers to: “The Past.” The director situates us in Ahmad’s perspective, which means he withholds knowledge of what has happened in this home and with these people, slowly revealing details and rumors. We are unsure of Ahmad’s relationship with Marie’s daughters (is he or is he not their biological father?), and one of the daughters, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) tips Ahmad off on more secrets: the state of Samir’s marriage, a suggestion of the root of Fouad’s torment, and the things that may be silently tearing apart Marie from the inside. Ahmad acts as a kind of detective-father figure, swooping in and trying to figure out each character and address their pain and need. But his intrusion, however reasonable and driven by love and sincerity, disrupts the uneasy chaos that, though not ideal, allowed this awkward family unit to function in his absence.
As with Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, The Past uses the legal institution of divorce as a means to explore the true nature of the human bonds we forge with one another. There is a wonderful scene nearly mid-way through the film when Ahmad and Marie sit with their lawyers and sign the papers to finalize their separation. The way they sit, slumped in their chairs, the way Farhadi has brought us through the drama alongside Ahmad — we know this legal split can’t dissolve his care for and personal investment in the people the marriage has brought into his life. Later on, an Iranian friend and restaurant owner urges Ahmad to simply leave and return to Iran. It is advice that feels futile; he is somehow bound to these people.
But this is not just Ahmad’s story. Farhadi’s script gives us an ensemble of full-fleshed human beings. Samir begins the film as an intruder, an outsider, but as the story develops, his sense of interior pathos deepens and his centrality to the familial conflict emerges. Lucie begins as a angst-ridden teenager caught in the middle of a parental dispute, but we soon learn that she holds her own secrets which weigh on her with a sense of shame and culpability. Marie is brought to life in a magnificent portrayal by Bérénice Bejo. When we first meet Marie she is standing behind a glass partition in an airport motioning for Ahmad’s attention, and she seems to remain like this throughout the film: at a distance, emotionally sealed off.
Farhadi’s style of directing is reminiscent here of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski in the way he uses recurring visual metaphors that play off and reemphasize the thematic situation. The glass partition is one, but there is also the ever-pounding rain, the swipe of windshield wipers, the shifting of a car’s gear shaft, the house paint, and the bad plumbing. The filmmaker is also good at using everyday vignettes to develop his characters and have them play out their conflicts. In the house, Ahmad and Samir continually get in each other’s way as Ahmad tries to fix a sink or takes over a bed, and Samir works to assert his manhood in the company of his lover’s ex.
These little moments feel so familiar, but they also are at the heart of what The Past is getting at. What gives the film its real dramatic power is its acute sensitivity to its characters’ humanity. Interactions, however minute or seemingly insignificant, seem to deepen interconnectedness; the relationships we forge leave an indelible mark on the self. And the past looms always over the present like a dream: misinterpreted, misleading, and ambiguous. And it is in confronting the reality of the past that these characters are forced to confront themselves.