Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi ended his previous film, the Oscar-winning A Separation, with a literalization of that title, with its two main characters on opposite sides of a partition. They could still see each other, but it was clear that efforts at communication were over with. His latest film – another masterpiece – picks up the conversation, so to speak, with another couple separated by glass. Marie (Bejo) waits on the other side of customs at a French airport waving to get the attention of Ahmad (Mosaffa). There is so much information embedded in this small, wordless scene – she has a wrist brace on, which she then removes – and the mind races: What’s up with her wrist? What is their relationship? Is this a happy reunion? Where is he coming from? And has he come to stay?
The questions never stop, even as the many players in this domestic drama come into focus. It’s not that Farhadi is being pointlessly opaque; he’s simply, brilliantly mimicking the way real people communicate. Most of us don’t go around spilling our guts all the time. We dribble facts and feelings, stop at half-truths when the whole truth is too uncomfortable – or when it can be better deployed later to more cutting effect.
After a four-year separation, Ahmad has returned to Paris in order to divorce Marie. At first, it seems amicable enough; indeed, they quickly fall into old routines – some helpful, some hurtful. He’s eager to see his stepdaughters (Burlet and Jestin), but startled to discover that Marie is now living with another man, Samir (Rahim), and his young son, Fouad (Aguis): Marie neglected to mention their existence. There’s a lot more she hasn’t told Ahmad, but she isn’t the only one who’s been keeping secrets.
Much like A Separation, The Past begins as a seemingly straightforward family melodrama and stealthily evolves into a kind of thriller. An act of violence takes place before the film starts, and that trauma – the how and why of it – is slowly rotting the insides of everyone touched by it. (Some reviews have divulged what that act is, but it’s better to go in blind.) It’s human instinct – and certainly the habit of a movie audience – to search out a “bad guy,” a clear-cut place to put blame, but Farhadi and his exceptional cast aren’t having it. Think you’ve nailed down a character? Wait another five minutes. It’s rare to see so many characters, including children, afforded so much nuance: We see the best and worst and the just-muddling-through in-between of everyone involved, and our understanding of them shifts, along with our sympathies, as more pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Do we ever get the whole truth? Only this: The past is never the past. In Farhadi’s wounding worldview, the past is the present and, most certainly, the future, too.