Linked by romances old and new, two Paris households experience upheaval when an Iranian husband arrives to grant his estranged wife’s request for a divorce in “The Past.”
Zero-sentimentality writer-director Asghar Farhadi, of “A Separation” fame, delivers observant human insights and graceful intricacies, along with the emotional charge of a grade-A melodrama, in this secrets-and-lies tapestry and exploration of modern relationships.
Like Farhadi’s earlier work, this smaller-scope tale contains an Iranian-style naturalism, multidimensional characters, and a plot involving the disintegration of a marriage.
Nothing, however, feels rehashed in the story, which features a Paris setting, a nicely unsoapy triangle, and an enhanced focus on children.
After being separated by airport glass in one of the few scenes where the symbolism feels excessive, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the above-mentioned husband, and Marie (Berenice Bejo), the wife he left four years earlier, bicker like old times when driving to the home they once shared.
Here, Ahmad reunites with teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and younger Lea (Jeanne Jestin), whose fond regard for him suggests they are his daughters but who are actually Marie’s kids from a previous marriage.
Intending for his visit to involve a hotel stay and a divorce-court date, Ahmad becomes mired in the family thicket, beginning when Marie asks him to talk to Lucie about the girl’s worrisome behavior.
Playing both peacemaker and detective, Ahmad learns Marie has a fiance – a laundry-business owner named Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has a young son named Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Lucie views Samir, who is Iranian, as a poor substitute for Ahmad. Further, Samir has a wife – Fouad’s mother – who is in a coma.
The film isn’t as grand in scale as “A Separation.” Nor is it as dramatically rich. The resolution to a key mystery doesn’t entirely satisfy.
While Farhadi proves less stimulating than Iranian notables Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi when deliberately leaving blanks in the picture for viewers to fill, he is overall an excellent storyteller. Rather than explaining things to death, Hollywood-style, he presents his material via believable dialogue.
And visual ingredients such as Ahmad helping his soon-to-be ex-wife blow-dry her hair speak tons about complicated feelings. By constantly adding shades to his flawed but decent characters, Farhadi keeps viewers’ sympathies satisfyingly shifting.
A penetrating drama about marriage, divorce, new bonds, and the impact of the past on the future, the film also perceptively depicts how parents, with a wobbly grip on their own steering wheel, can make it impossible for their shaken-up kids to know where they stand.
The actors are efficiently in sync with Farhadi’s emphasis on realism and nuance, and Bejo (who played the aptly named Peppy in “The Artist”) is particularly fine. Also noteworthy is first-timer Aguis, wonderfully natural as the tyke Fouad.
three and a half stars
Starring Berenice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahat Rahim, Pauline Burlet
Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
Running time 2 hours, 10 minutes