One of the most striking realizations when watching Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is that the title is an edict. By the time The Past begins, everything important has already happened. Ahmad is coming to Paris after a long separation to sign divorce papers at the request of his ex-wife, Marie, who’s already living with her next significant other, Samir. Their two families are already uneasily blended and begrudging old hurts. Even the heavy secret hanging over their domesticity surrounds a fait accompli.
This is, of course, by design. Farhadi is an exacting, deeply engaged filmmaker whose work examines familiarly-flawed characters living in the gray area between what’s ideal, what’s likely and what’s possible. His is a world without moral absolutes, messy and all too recognizable. A Separation, one of the best films of 2011, was a wrenching and astutely-rendered story of two families quietly falling apart, a study of entropy at a moment of crisis. Though not its sequel by any means, The Past is a natural thematic successor. It’s a movie about aftermath, always circling its own epilogue. As a portrait of the cumulative internal gridlocks in which its characters are trapped, its central mystery slowly presses its characters, but real forward motion is impossible; the most we can hope, the film suggests, is to move inward toward understanding after it’s too late.
Though this makes The Past sound gloomy, it isn’t. It’s often sharp, occasionally funny and wryly aware of the faults of its characters. Farhadi’s script is, in is barest strokes, a family mystery. It’s revealed early that Samir’s wife is in a coma, and the movie’s driving plot points surround Ahmad’s reluctant attempts to discover the minutia of how; the unpeeling of the grim particulars chase an impossible why. If this plot once or twice strays into the overly procedural, it’s an odd beat that pales in comparison to the complex family entanglements at its heart, and the battlefield of a dripping sink can illuminate as much, if not more, than Ahmad’s awkward half-quest to understand what’s happened to Samir’s wife. And though the movie’s claustrophobia grates on its inhabitants, the film feels remarkably spare for a movie that runs two hours long. Farhadi knows that pauses can speak louder than words.
It’s a script that sinks or swims on its cast, but Farhadi has assembled an ensemble more than up to the challenge. Ali Mosaffa’s Ahmad is an understated take on a difficult part, an entry point into the complicated family dynamics; he’s a man trying to move on who falls, with telling ease, back into step with the family troubles. Berenice Bejo is a revelation as Marie, composed equally of sharp edges and unshakeable fears, her vanity a cracking veneer over her need to be loved. Tahar Rahim quietly burns as Marie’s new beau Samir, who’s introduced to the story by degrees, though his paternal bond with the excellent Elyes Aguis as his young son Fouad is always easy and unstudied. It’s a clever parallel to Ahmad’s relationship with teenage stepdaughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), maybe the only one in the family who’s forgiven Ahmad’s own difficulties at the end of his marriage to Marie. Their simpatico betrays a much more paternal role than Ahmad may say he wants, but it’s a role he still finds hard to leave behind, even in its last days.
That sense of possibilities that never materialized forms the backbone of The Past, a movie of almosts and not-quites. Marie’s property backs up to train tracks that seem at times to taunt the people caught in the family web; the house is lovely but falling apart around Marie’s attempts to renovate. Fouad and Marie’s younger daughter Léa (Jeanne Jestin) occupy the nebulous territory between strangers and siblings, and Lucie bristles at being old enough to be under expectations, yet not old enough to be taken seriously in family decisions—a position that turns out to be untenable. Perhaps the most out of place, Samir tries to balance his hopes for the relationship with significant guilt that rightfully haunts him and an almost casual jealousy of Ahmad. Not that it’s without foundation; Marie and Ahmad’s past relationship is a palpable overlay on their current animosity, so their fighting is both charged with resentment and strangely comfortable, the animated bickering of a couple still invested in one another despite themselves. One of the most evocative images in the film is Marie standing at the window, pensive, considering Ahmad’s silhouette illuminated in the backyard shed as he goes through all the things he left behind that she couldn’t bring herself to throw away.
Despite a lack of impending doom, The Past still maintains a sometimes-dreadful tension in its quiet revelations and angry outbursts. It builds a film so quietly gripping, so carefully scripted and acted, that the characters take on the voyeuristic immediacy of a long-awaited fight between people you nearly know. It’s a painstakingly rendered moment in time, a crossroads of personal histories that we want to see resolved, but never can—and the key melancholy of The Past is that they can’t see a resolution, either. Perhaps the movie’s most haunting grace note is that despite brief flashes of understanding, its characters are no closer to solving each other than we are.