You see a lot of movies and most of them are pretty ordinary. Once in a while you see one slightly above average and it’s a cause for celebration. On rare occasions you see something truly outstanding and you’re reminded why you love cinema in the first place. It’s the nourishment that keeps you going through the day-to-day ordinary. That happened this morning at Cannes with the debut of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past – all the more remarkable because the film comes with such high expectations following the Iranian filmmaker’s Foreign Language Oscar-winning A Separation. If anything, Farhadi has topped himself. The Past is a richly rewarding human drama of seemingly infinite depth and nuance.
The raw narrative material exploring a couple in the throes of a breakup is similar to A Separation, but Farhadi manages to dig deeper and reveal even more nuances of human experience. The emotion of The Past is also not quite so front-loaded as it was in A Separation. It’s a slow burn that reveals itself in layers, almost as a matter-of-fact mystery, each new detail reshaping the complexion of the story and upending your expectations. The pleasures come largely from these subtle turns and to itemize each plot point in an attempt to describe the film would be to ruin it.
Working for the first time in the French language, Farhadi has somehow elicited stirring and believable performances from his French cast which includes Berenice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) who will be familiar to American audiences. Also excellent is Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa. Surprisingly good too are the two children, especially little Elyes Aguis as Fouad, Tahar Rahim’s son who find himself caught in the middle of a bewildering situation utterly beyond his control and he acts out with a convincing rage. It’s one of those rare, naturalistic children’s performances that almost doesn’t seem like acting at all.
The three adult characters form a sort of dramatic triangle with Mosaffa as the outgoing husband, Rahim as his replacement and Bejo in the middle. As with A Separation, what’s remarkable is how even-handed Farhadi is. There is no villain. Each character is a fully realized human being who tries his or her best but who makes mistakes and suffers the consequences. Their situation proves increasingly complicated as each piece of the emotional puzzle is revealed and the effects ripple outward drawing in more and more characters. The other key is that Farhadi never resorts to artificially enhancing his drama. It flows naturally and organically and surprisingly.
Thematically, the idea of the past in the film is interesting and multifaceted. On one hand, it’s a burden that many of the characters must confront in order to move into the future. On the other, it’s something that can never be changed. The past is permanent and what happens in the future is forever impacted by it. You have to find a way to navigate it but you can never alter it. In one way or another each one of the characters must confront these facts as the drama quietly builds to a stirring but tantalizingly open-ended climax. I don’t expect to see a better movie this year.