The Past is such a portentous title that it almost threatens to scupper the titled project before it has got off the ground. The opening of Asghar Farhadi’s film has a laboured feel, as though its straining every sinew to convey everything that’s going on beneath the surface between Bejo’s Marie and Mosaffa’s Ahmad as they make the trip from the airport to Marie’s suburban home. Two people who were in a relationship but have lived apart for many years. It’s a rich sequence, but overly so, the weight of their back story threatening to overwhelm the present moment.
Fortunately, the narrative then abruptly plunges into the problems of the present. In particular, Marie’s relationships with her two girls as well as the son of her new lover, Samir. Elyes Aguis, gives a remarkable performance as Fouad, the confused child whose mother has recently tried to kill herself. His acting is all the more potent as a result of his character being kept on the margin of the narrative, where he acts as a mirror reflecting the anxiety and hurt which the actions of the adults has provoked. The adults are given a lot to deal with. Attempted suicide, separation, unhappy offspring. In the manner of a Hardy novel, the film painstakingly unravels the threads which bind the three protagonists together. This inevitably leads to a flirtation with melodrama, but Farhadi succeeds in steering a course away from the sharks of sentimentalism which circle his narrative.
This might be because, as well as being a relationship film, this is also a story about what it’s like to be an immigrant, first or second generation. Two of his actors are non-natives and the third is second generation French. Each takes on a character which feels in some way disconnected. Both Marie and Samir struggle to offer their children any sense of solidity, leaving them feeling rootless and confused. Ahmad’s arrival only serves to muddle the waters. Where the oldest daughter, Lucie, initially sees him as an ally, his presence ultimately resolves nothing. Whilst there is a potential pain inherent to any relationship, the film seems to suggest that this is exacerbated within a modern world which allows people to cross borders and distances with seeming ease, leaving them feeling isolated and helpless when things start to go wrong.
The Past possesses a dense narrative whose focus shifts from one character to another, concluding appropriately enough with the figure whose presence has been instrumental throughout but upto the very end has never been seen. Farhadi knows his key dramatic moments and plays them out for all they are worth. It is a reminder of what a well-worked screenplay really looks like: nothing flashy, just layer upon layer of subtle revelations, built up to create a compelling portrait of a few people who have been thrown together by fate and have to learn to make do, no matter how unsuited to life and relationships they feel themselves to be.