Bérénice Bejo in The Past (Carole Bethuel/Sony Pictures Classics)

Bérénice Bejo in The Past (Carole Bethuel/Sony Pictures Classics)

Written & Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Produced by Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
French & Persian with English subtitles.
France/Italy. 130 min. Rated PG-13
With Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karmi & Valeria Cavalli

yellowstar The family portrayed in The Past certainly embodies Tolstoy’s old saying about unhappy families—if this amalgam of people brought together under one roof, viewing one another with suspicion and fear, can even be referred to as such. From infidelity, secrets, guilt, shame, and subtle ways of carrying out revenge, there are myriad ways in which all the characters here are suffering. It all begins when Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to grant his wife Marie’s (Bérénice Bejo) request for a divorce, only to be made painfully aware that Marie has moved on: she and her two daughters are now living with her married lover, Samir, and his five-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis).

Ahmad, the supposed interloper, brings the closest semblance to domestic tranquility to the family. He soothes the enraged Fouad as the boy throws a tantrum after a scolding, fixes a broken sink that has confounded Samir for weeks, and bonds easily with both girls, though he’s not actually their father. It’s teenage Lucie, in particular, that keeps Ahmad within the household, even after the divorce is easily wrapped up. Though she stays out till all hours, the adolescent is less a rebellious hellion and more an unhappy, overlooked waif. Actress Pauline Burlet’s sad-eyed expressions expertly convey the misery and guilt with which the girl is burdened and which no one but Ahmad sees. Fouad, too, responds to the situation with frustration, but through violent outbursts and obstinacy. These characters make it clear that their home life is untenable.

Though it would be tempting to point fingers—at Marie, the alleged homewrecker, or Samir, the insensitive father and husband—filmmaker Asghar Farhadi lets none of his characters off the hook, refusing to assign blame. At the same time, no one is one dimensional or oversimplified. Marie is by turns a self-centered woman, whose desire for love and disregard for her daughter’s feeling borders on calculating. A casual remark she tosses off to Ahmad right before the divorce is finalized is truly cutting. Yet Bejo occasionally allows a barely seen vulnerability to surface, and her genuine tenderness toward Fouad gives her nuance and keeps her away from what could easily have been caricature: the cruelly beautiful stepmother. And while Ahmad attempts to set things right, he’s no white knight. The guilt he feels over abandoning his family and his hurt at being replaced is palpable, though Mosaffa deftly plays this displaced patriarch with admirable subtlety.

There’s an elegance to the narrative: the specter of Samir’s wife, comatose after a suicide attempt, hangs over the film, a constant though unseen presence. This is a visually stunning film as well; the shots perfectly accompany the narrative. From the opening scene—in which Marie and Ahmad meet at an airport and speak briefly through a glass partition, their relationship initially unclear and their words inaudible to the viewer—there’s a sense that seemingly ordinary events are tinged with mystery and uncertainty, which never lets up.

Farhadi takes his time meting out details (for example, why Samir’s wife is in a coma or the real reasons for Lucie’s unhappiness), making this work feel structured yet natural. The measured pace allows the audience to be drawn in slowly, and the tendency toward long takes allows us to feel an intimacy with these characters that both is intense and occasionally overwhelming. When Farhadi deals these characters yet another blow, the effect—both on them and upon us—is quietly devastating.