AFI Fest: The Past (★★★½)

The PastThe past is one of the main characters in Asghar Farhadi‘s new film, The Past (Le passé).

Starring Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, and Tahar Rahim, this is the triangular story of Ahmad (Mosaffa), who has returned to France after four years in his homeland of Iran. His return is at the request of Marie (Bejo), his estranged wife who has summoned him home to finalize their divorce. Eager to move forward with her relationship with Samir (Rahim), Marie invites Ahmad temporarily into her home and back into the lives of she and her two daughters, Lucie and Léa.

Bejo, whom American viewers will recognize from  her Oscar-nominated role in The Artist, is simply mesmerizing as she tries to balance the end of one relationship, the teetering of another, and the frustration of losing control of a defiant teenage daughter. She easily slips from anger to tender sincerity and back again as she navigates these tricky situations. Bejo gives one of the best performances of the year and proves to be just as amazing in French as she is in silence.

Mosaffa is a contemplative and good-natured Ahmad, easing back into the lives of Marie’s two daughters as though he hasn’t been away at all. It’s clear they view him as their father figure and he cares about them as if they were his own. Mosaffa’s portrayal is kind, patient, and loving, but never boring and it was a joy to watch him navigate the prickly parameters of estrangement. He spends most of the film not with Marie, but with her daughters, and with Samir’s young son Fouad. It is particularly in his scenes with Fouad and with Lucie that Mosaffa demonstrates a fatherly compassion that leaves the viewer wondering what could have possibly gone wrong in his relationship with Marie.

 samir and ahmad

Completing the triangle is Samir and Rahim plays him well as a man on the brink of boiling over. He is jealous, lacking confidence, and unsure of his future with Marie, but balances these negative emotions with love and loyalty for Marie, for his son, and for his wife, who has been in a coma the past several months. Rahim gives a raw performance and it’s impossible to predict where he will go next.

Farhadi’s script gives plenty of opportunity to fully flesh out each character, exploring their motivations, their desires, and their fears. Even Lucie and Fouad are given well-developed roles and the young actors who play them (Pauline Burlet and Elyes Aguis) shine despite the shadow that has been cast on their lives due to events in the recent past. This is where I say that the past almost becomes another character in the story, its presence and importance looming large as events in the present become increasingly tumultuous.

Pauline Burlet

There are some truly beautiful moments in The Past, and Farhadi allows them the time necessary to play out. For the most part, the pacing is perfect, and certain plot elements are revealed only precisely when they need to be. This keeps the story moving well, though it begins to drag a little toward the end as the primary focus shifts from Ahmad and Marie to Samir. While this shift makes the film slow down, it leads to an ending that is heartbreaking in its perfection.

Genuine, never contrived, The Past will get a lot of positive attention as one of the best foreign language films of 2013, but it is really one of the best films of the year in any language.