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“We have to forget,” a man tells his lover in The Past, Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi‘s follow-up to his 2012 Oscar winner, A Separation. The woman responds, “Is that possible?”
Probably not with this modern family. Marie (Berenice Bejo) is a Frenchwoman who asks her ex, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), to travel from his native Iran to sign divorce papers four years after he left. While they were married, Ahmad was a father figure to Marie’s two girls, the now-teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and younger sibling, Lea (Jeanne Jestin), from other relationships. But he wasn’t aware that Marie was also now living with two boys: petulant little Fouad (Elyes Aguis) and his father, Samir (Tahar Rahim). And Marie didn’t book a hotel for him, so she essentially throws her new life into Ahmad’s face.
There are more rather shocking revelations that mommie dearest, er, Marie, has waiting for Ahmad. At the beginning, though, he knows only that Lucie has developed an attitude problem and Marie is a stressed-out nightmare, screaming at and even shoving around the kids. Samir tries to stay away, but the men inevitably have to awkwardly face each other, with Marie asking Ahmad to try to find out why Lucie has been rebelling.
Rather similar in tone, intensity, and truth to A Separation, The Past wrestles with themes such as depression, infidelity, bitterness, lack of closure in relationships, and the tremendously difficult tasks of forgiveness and letting go. Mosaffa’s Ahmad is a peaceful presence and fount of wisdom—-if occasionally seeming too perfect—-who attempts to balance this perpetually rattled new family. Bejo is a force, inarguably proving that she can navigate a dark character who is the extreme opposite of the role that brought her into the spotlight, The Artist’s peppy Peppy. (The part originally belonged to Marion Cotillard, who had scheduling conflicts.) Burlet is also realistically angry yet sympathetic as Marie’s unheard daughter.
Instead of feeling like a too-heavy melodrama you’d rather tune out, Farhadi has again created a riveting peek into the issues people face behind closed doors. The film has no music to cue your emotions, and at times you don’t even hear dialogue, with interactions filmed through glass or, Lost in Translation-like, whispered in an ear. We never find out why Ahmad left, and the exquisitely tender final scene is not only left open to interpretation, but its potential ramifications are endless conversation fodder. This is a filmmaker who expertly boosts your need to know—-which, to put the above-mentioned question into another context, makes The Past impossible to forget.