Movie review: Filmmaker’s return to “The Past” is fulfilling

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From the February 13, 2014 edition

It’s a testament to Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi that I could even consider a movie as good as “The Past” to be any kind of disappointment.

You see, Farhadi’s last film was 2011’s “A Separation,” a devastating drama about a couple who must decide between leaving Iran for a better life for their daughter or staying to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.

“A Separation” won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year, and deservedly so. So my anticipation for his new movie was high.

“The Past” (or “La Passé”) shares similar themes with “A Separation.” Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is an Iranian man who left his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and two children to return to his homeland.

We meet Ahmad as he is returning to Marie to finalize their divorce. As he stays in their home, he learns that Marie has been living with a man she met recently, Samir (Tahar Rahim). This is when things get (more) complicated.

Writer-director Farhadi also nabbed a buzzworthy cast. Bejo was the female lead in the silent Oscar-darling “The Artist,” and Rahim the star of the amazing 2009 gangster drama “Une Prophét (A Prophet).”

So expectations are high, and “The Past” delivers on them for the most part. Performances are solid to great — Bejo got some Oscar buzz in a crowded field — and Farhadi’s knack for revealing backstory in a way that feels organic is intact.

“The Past” has all of the sticky complications of life, and the characters’ response is authentic, often heart-wrenching.

But as the web grows more complex, the film can’t quite stand up to the sleeker story of “A Separation.” That film also got more weight from the cultural impact of the Iranian setting.

None of this is to detract from “The Past,” a very good film in its own right. Without the expectations Farhadi set with his last film, this would be a minor revelation on its own right. Instead we must settle for it “just” being very good.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics