IT’S COMPLICATED: Marie (Bérénice Bejo) wants to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), but they have other spouses to consider.
City Paper grade: A-
In the final moments of The Past, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to the justly acclaimed A Separation, the memory of a perfume’s scent is movingly revived, becoming an apt summation of how the past lingers in the air as an elusive yet unavoidable impression. At the center of Farhadi’s terse, quietly harrowing melodrama is a fragmented family coming to terms with its own inescapable history.
The title may be a touch too spot-on, as is the opening scene in which Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to finalize his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo). The two reunite on opposite sides of a glass barrier, visually belaboring the gulf between them — which, as it turns out, isn’t nearly as transparent as that wall implies. They still care about each other, despite Marie’s engagement to Samir (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet).
It’s not only their history together that threatens everyone’s fragile happiness, however. Samir is married to a woman in a coma, which binds his new relationship to his wife’s trapped consciousness. The cause of her vegetative state is just one of the film’s secrets, some shared, some grasped tightly by a single person, which slowly emerge. For Farhadi, the titular past is a bomb that’s already exploded; he’s most interested in examining those living through its fallout.
While The Past lacks the deep moral complexities of its predecessor, it is, in some ways, a more unyielding piece, its characters harder to read even as their motives are made known. Like its subjects, the film is unwilling to give itself up easily. Its stubborn richness seems to argue that, if it can take a lifetime to truly get to know another person, why should a story fully reveal itself in the span of two hours? As the film continues to bloom in the mind weeks later, it’s a question hard to ignore.
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