Cannes 2013: 'The Past' review

Asghar Farhadi first burst onto the international scene with his 2011 Silver Bear/Oscar winner A Separation, the most recent of several astute Iranian dramas. Farhadi returns this year with Palme d'Or nominee The Past (Le passé, 2013), a film equally as riveting as those that came before. This nuanced, complex France-set story unwinds and reveals itself at a measured pace, yet its intensity never lags. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in France to finalise his divorce with soon-to-be ex-wife Marie (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo). However, in his absence Marie has found a new lover in the guise of Samir (Our Children's Tahar Rahim).

Samir carries with him his own life baggage; specifically, a wife who is in a coma after a botched suicide attempt. His small son also lives with him, as do Lea (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie's daughters from her marriage to Ahmad. Lucie is particularly troubled by her mother's new relationship, at which point Marie asks her husband to intervene in order to help their daughter accept this confusing new state of affairs. Farhadi keeps an intimate closeness to his characters, but also allows for moments of separation - both from each other and from us, the audience.

Ultimately, the core of The Past lies within the difficulty of communication and the irrevocable emotional damage that can incur when lines of communication inevitably break down. As with his past outings, all of Farhadi's characters are to some extent guilty and yet also eminently forgiveable. To praise the cast's supreme performances here would be to do them a disservice: they don't feel at all like fabrications. Bejo is superb as a woman grasping at happiness when everything seems to be against her. Mosaffa imbues Ahmad with a quiet dignity, but we can also see the vulnerability and depression which led to the dissolution of his marriage. Finally, Rahim continues to consolidate his growing, glowing reputation.

The look of Farhadi's latest chamber piece is one of wintry pallor. The rain falls heavily and sporadically throughout the unfolding narrative, but thankfully The Past never squelches too far into all-out melodrama. The interiors are warm. The house that used to be Ahmad and Marie's happy marital home - which Samir is now helping redecorate - stands as an obvious symbol of change, and yet still remains in the No Man's Land between the two relationships. A shelf is gone, but the ageing sink still blocks.

The past proves a complex, uncertain place for Farhadi's cast of broken players, and there are certainly no easy answers to be triumphantly unearthed by those involved. No one is wholly wrong, nor wholly right; they are all simply human with failings and justifications. Farhadi's films always aspire to - and so often achieve - the subtlety of a brilliant novel, and although The Past lacks the biting political subplot of the aforementioned A Separation, it once again confirms the Iranian director as one of world cinema's most accomplished anatomists of human relationships.

The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link. 

John Bleasdale


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