Sins of The Past

The Past
(Iran/France, 130 min.)
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Sabrina Ouazani
Bérénice Bejo as Marie
Photo by Carole Bethuel © 2013 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

2014 is barely a month old, but there is already a clear frontrunner for the title of “Most Disappointing Film of the Year”. That film, surprisingly, is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past. Folks were all a twitter when the Iranian film was left off the Academy’s shortlist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; however, the voters on the loony foreign film committees made the right choice. The Past isn’t a bad film by any means, but it never achieves the greatness or gravitas of Farhadi’s revelatory A Separation, which scooped the Academy Award two years ago. The Past is more of the same from Farhadi. It just lacks the punch and style that made A Separation a five-star masterwork.

The Past, ironically, is a tale of separations. There’s the separation and impending divorce of Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), and the rift Marie has going on with her current beau, Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim). Marie broke up a marriage by coming between Samir and his depressed wife, who tried to take her life in turn and now lies in a coma in the hospital and looms over the new couple with more weight than they, especially Marie, can bear.

Bejo, who won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes film festival, gives a sensational performance as the utterly unlikable and unsympathetic Marie. Bejo shows an impressive emotional range as she carries the film with the same delicate charm of her turn in The Artist, but she also turns Marie into a self-destructive mess of emotional manipulation and histrionics. There’s lots of pent-up emotion in The Past, and it all seems to have a purpose when Bejo holds the scene. She has a truly magnetic relationship with the camera, as the silent introduction to her character makes plainly clear.

There are other moments, however, in which all the Shouting and Acting of The Past just seems to compensate for Farhadi’s lack of style and focus. The Past could easily be a stage production, for the obscure chitchat never assumes the necessary cinematic drive to make such a subdued, minimalist, and dialogue-heavy film engaging. One could easily point to A Separation and see how a film comes to life in the editing room, where the cuts act as punctuation marks, telling the viewer how to gasp, breathe, and feel as the mesmerizing character-driven drama unfolds before one’s eyes. The craftwork of The Past is admittedly striking, especially the subtle cinematography by Mahmoud Kalari and score by Evgueni and Youli Galperine, but it never really furthers the unwieldy stasis of this chamber piece.

Farhadi gives the audience virtually no context for the tricky domestic web he’s spinning. There’s very little room for one to connect with any of the characters, though, for they’re all too cautious and guarded to let one into their heads. Everyone talks about everything in an elusive roundabout way, for being forthright and direct would be like an omission of guilt for the unspoken sins they’re carrying with them. The film lets the guilt of the past become an overpowering burden for its cast as people finally let things off their chests. The drama explodes when one awful revelation pulls Samir’s absent wife into the picture, in turn creating an arresting dialogue for the ways in which people perceive depression and use mental illness as a wedge with which they can manipulate others to gain an advantage.

This is elusive film culminates in a powerful third act that finally brings the secrets of the past full circle, but the build-up is so unrelentingly slow and murky that the emotional payoff is vastly muted. Perhaps if the film gave more insight into Samir, the slow single tear that offers a feat of cinematic subtlety would be the rewarding finale one wishes it would be. The unspoken sins of The Past nevertheless have a potent snowball effect once they’re finally given voice.

There’s a deep layer of moral complexity sitting atop The Past that one hopes to see shatter, but Farhadi never really strikes the film with the force it needs. Secrets are revealed and lives are broken, yet the film unfolds at such an obnoxiously slow pace that Farhadi lets the morass of the story feel more like a dramatic vacuum than a cannonball that should be firing from the screen. The Past, frankly, is an intriguing, well-acted, and immaculate bore.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Past is currently playing in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on February 7.