Friday, May 31, 2013

The Past

The Iranian film-maker Asghar Farhadi has come to Cannes with an absorbing, fascinating if slightly contrived movie, a loss-of-love-triangle starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa and Tahar Rahim. A Frenchwoman, Marie (Bejo), is attempting to resolve difficulties with her Iranian husband, Ahmad (Mosaffa), from whom she has been long separated, and to make a fresh start with a new partner, Samir (Rahim). The film revisits some themes of Asghar's breakthrough film A Separation, about the mortality of love, along with ideas about intimacy and domesticity in a world where the stepfamily is the norm. Here it is further supercharged with a grand tragic theme — the past and its pitiless grip on us. Farhadi shows the desperation and anger involved in trying to defy the past, to annul incorrect life-choices.

It is an intricate and often brilliant drama, with restrained and intelligent performances; there is an elegantly patterned mosaic of detail, unexpected plot turns, suspenseful twists and revelations. The narrative structure itself is perhaps a little over-determined; there is some melodrama in the tragedy, and the continued absence from the screen of one important character perhaps makes the final scene a little easy to guess. It is often rather like a stage-play, but interestingly and bracingly so. The continuing force and intelligence of Farhadi's film-making is compelling.

Marie has asked Ahmad to return to Paris from Teheran, to be present for the long-delayed and much-disputed divorce proceedings; he is not legally required to be there, but Marie wants closure, to bid a civilised, grown-up farewell to their failed marriage, and also for him to say a considerate goodbye to her children from the relationship that preceded theirs who were always fond of him: little Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and stroppy teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet).

But to Ahmad's dismay, Marie has not booked him a hotel, but for complex and unexamined motives expects him to stay in her small, chaotic house, putting him right in the middle of her current ménage; her new, younger partner Samir (Rahim), who owns a dry-cleaning store, has moved in with his little boy Fouad (Elyes Aguis). To Samir's chagrin, Ahmad and Marie still appear to have the relationship of a married couple — albeit an unhappy one — and all three children respond naturally to Ahmad as a father figure, making the tangled, complicated and painful situation even more intense. Even more burdensome is a further task Marie expects of Ahmad: to talk to Lucie and ask her why she is so angry. Her answers disclose agonising and even terrifying truths about what has led to their current situation.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has made the trip from Iran to Paris for the first time in four years to finally sign divorce papers, officially ending his marriage to Marie (Bérénice Bejo) at her request. Upon his arrival at the airport, Marie sees him through a thick pane of glass. She smiles, he shrugs. The airline has lost his bag and will have to send it to him the following day. They communicate by mouthing words and using hand gestures. One understands the other, but the metaphor is quite clear.

At this moment in the film we know nothing about these two people. They could be happily married and he returning home from a business trip and she simply picking him up, but writer/director Asghar Farhadi and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari's visual representation of the invisible barrier between the two weighs heavy on the rest of the film.

Farhadi's The Past (Le Passe) rolls into the 2013 Cannes Film Festival with the pressure of living up to his Oscar-winning feature A Separation. With the entirety of the film world watching, I'd argue he's delivered something just as good if not better.

The dark secrets this film hides are slowly revealed, some raising more questions than answers. The first comes only minutes into the film as Ahmad learns not only is Marie engaged, but she's living with another man. Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), now reside where he once lived alongside Marie and her two children.

More than ever he expects Marie has made hotel reservations like they'd discussed, only to learn she expects him to bunk in the same room with Fouad for a couple days. The reason for this decision is quickly revealed to be part of an ulterior motive to get him to speak with her eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who's been detached and coming home later and later e night.

One of the constant challenges for screenwriters is trying to condense the complexity of human beings into an accessible feature-length presentation. In real life, it can take months—maybe years, maybe never—to fully understand another person. (And that’s if we’re lucky enough to even figure out ourselves.) Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi is restrained by the same obstacles that other filmmakers are, but somehow he seems capable of developing incredibly complex and nuanced characters. They’re layers upon layers, contradictory and mysterious, still revealing things about themselves even once we think we have a bead on them.

Farhadi’s new film, his sixth as a director, is The Past. Like his previous offering, the Oscar-winning A Separation, it concerns romantic relationships, family, and the maddening inability to get a handle on the people around you. And once again, he is incredibly fair and generous to all his characters. Maybe a bit to a fault.

The film opens with Marie (Bérénice Bejo) picking Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport in Paris. It’s not a happy reunion: After four years away in Tehran, Ahmad has been summoned by his soon-to-be ex-wife to sign the paperwork that will finalize their divorce. In his absence, life has moved forward. Her two children (Lucie, played by Pauline Burlet, and Léa, played by Jeanne Jestin) from a previous relationship are growing up and, more importantly, there’s a new man in Marie’s orbit. An owner of a dry-cleaning business, Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) are living with, an awkward situation for Ahmad, who feels himself being drawn back into the swirl of her world.

Asghar Farhadi may have left his native Iran to shoot a picture in Paris starring Berenice Bejo, but in all the ways that count, “The Past” couldn’t feel closer to home. Like 2011′s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” this is an exquisitely sculpted family melodrama in which the end of a marriage is merely the beginning of something else, an indelible tapestry of carefully engineered revelations and deeper human truths. If Farhadi’s sense of narrative construction is almost too incisive at times, costing the drama some focus and credibility in the final reels, he nonetheless maintains a microscopic attention to character, performance and theme that will make this powerfully acted picture a very classy specialty-division prospect.

Few filmmakers today can honestly claim to be working in the Renoir humanist tradition, but “The Past” is the veritable embodiment of the central “Rules of the Game” maxim that everyone has their reasons. As familiar as they are often unpredictable, Farhadi’s finely etched characters are forever revealing new sides of themselves to the camera, pulling the viewer’s sympathies every which way as the human condition is not just examined but anatomized.

All the ingredients of a pressure-cooker scenario are in place at the outset, as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce from wife Marie (Bejo) after a four-year separation. Almost immediately the two start bickering, not entirely in the manner of a couple ready to call it quits, although the various complications that Farhadi gradually reveals, layer by layer, preclude any serious possibility of a reconciliation.

Once the soon-to-be-exes arrive at Marie’s charmingly ramshackle abode on the city’s outskirts, where she lives with two daughters from a prior relationship, Ahmad becomes embroiled in a nearly untenable situation. Marie’s eldest, sullen teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) strongly disapproves of her mother’s plans to wed Samir (Tahar Rahim), the latest in a line of boyfriends. Marie’s other daughter, Lea (Jeanne Jestin), and Samir’s son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), scamper underfoot, causing trouble in the harmless but disruptive manner of young tots. In crises big and small, Ahmad is called upon to be a rational, stabilizing force, even as his very presence is a source of tension.

Asghar Farhadi’s last film, A Separation of 2011, about a painful family break-up in Tehran, made on a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for best foreign language film. It’s a movie that pays attention to actions and consequences with rare conviction. Now Farhadi, still only 41, has made his first film outside Iran, in French (a language it seems he does not speak) with a French producer and a French star, Berenice Bejo (who won fame as Peppy in her husband Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar winner The Artist, also of 2011). The Past (Le Passe) tackles the same themes of marital breakdown and in particular the irreparable consequences for the children involved in an even graver, more sombre and overwhelming way.

Ahmad (the distinguished Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa) arrives in rainy suburban France to sign his divorce from his French wife, pharmacist Marie (Bejo, bravely showing an angrier, less winsome side) after four years of separation. She has two daughters — and also in her house is Fouad, the troubled small son of her new partner Samir, a laundry manager (Tahar Rahim, the star of A Prophet).

Gradually, we realize that Marie’s daughters are not Ahmad’s, but the children of a previous husband again — and there has been a fearsome cost to her new relationship. Samir, too, is married — and his wife has been in a coma for eight months after attempting suicide. Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie cannot bear the idea of her mother’s new partner. Over the space of a few days, the secrets of what has happened between these people emerge — and it becomes apparent that for some acts there can be no forgiveness. Repeatedly, we see apologies made, perhaps to little effect.

The film is slow, patient, attentive, focusing absolutely on the human drama without any other distractions. Throughout the acting, especially that by the children, is superb.

Farhadi, whose background is in theatre, rehearsed the piece for two months before beginning the shoot and that deep preparation shows — the exhausted antagonism overlaying the deep ties between Marie and Ahmad is instantly clear. The actors carry themselves throughout with formality and even severity.

Divorce is rarely a scenario in which anyone wins, least of all the children, as A Separation director Asghar Faradi reminds us once again in his latest feature, The Past, which has been widely touted as one of the Cannes Film Festival’s hottest tickets and a sure-fire Palme d’Or frontrunner. While failing to quite live up to the heart-wrenching moral dilemmas of the director’s previous film, The Past offers up plenty of provocative notions about the state of the contemporary family unit, wrapped around a thoroughly engrossing central mystery.

The story begins as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is summoned to France by his estranged wife of four years, Marie (Berenice Bejo), to finalize their long-gestating divorce. However, Ahmad soon enough uncovers quite the familial powder keg once he realizes that Marie’s current partner, Samir (Tahir Rahim), has near-enough set up shop with her despite the fact that he has a wife in an eight-month-long coma following a suicide attempt. It is the character of Samir’s wife who, though seen on screen for roughly just a minute in total, forms the crux of the film’s dramatic tension.

Though initially the passive-aggressive quibbling between the unconventional family configuration, which sees Ahmad staying at Marie’s home with her and Samir’s combined three children, as well as the new beau himself, might suggest a toothed examination of middle-class mores is on the cards, Farhadi has something else very different lined up. This is another reliably well-mounted close-up look at a family in crisis, irreparably splintered off and now preoccupied with their respective pasts — a divorce and a coma — despite the effort previously made to move past them.

Through and through, it all comes back to Samir’s wife and the impact her situation has on damn-near every character in the film, be it indirectly or not. The various questions surrounding her episode form much of The Past‘s intrigue, and suitably, Farhadi unfurls the answers like a finely-preened suspense thriller. Key to it all is perhaps the film’s most fascinating character, Marie’s 16-year-old daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who has become increasingly withdrawn from the family dynamic, and as we learn later, with good reason.

To say anymore would be to ruin the winding quality of Farhadi’s deliberate drama, which revels in dark secrets though rarely deigns to credulity-stretching melodrama. What can be said is that each, new, startling beat is propelled forward by the bang-up performances across the board. While Mosaffa gets the seemingly lighter load as our guide through this labyrinth of familial disarray, he delivers a potent everyman and arguably the only truly relatable character throughout the film. Bejo, meanwhile, sizzles in a role miles away from her plucky turn in The Artist, this time a rather unsavory, ill-tempered sort who earns much of our ire and little of our sympathy (though, quite fairly, there are no monochrome villains here). The main gripe here is that Bejo’s turn does occasionally saunter into off-putting histrionics.

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