THE PAST (2013)
Running Time: 130 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Language: French & Persian with English subtitles
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli, Aleksandra Klebanska, Jean-Michel Simonet, Pierre Guerder, Anne-Marion de Cayeux, Eleonora Marino, Jonathan Devred
If this were one of the abundant numbers of sitcoms about family dysfunction, the moral might be something as vacuous as “Don’t mess with married men.” But THE PAST is a serious drama written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose previous entry, A SEPARATION, looks closely at a family that must make a serious choice: A couple must decide whether to leave Iran for rosier shores, or stay put in that repressive state in order to care for a mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s. So what might be this serious writer-director’s moral for THE PAST? “Don’t mess with married men.” Sounds simple, but “Le passe” as it’s called in France where it was filmed, is delightfully complex, filled with almost as many twists and surprises that you’d find in a story by Stephen King or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or for that matter just about any writer who gets jollies messing with the minds of the audience.
THE PAST is in French, a language in which the Iranian director is hardly fluent, making his job that much more difficult than the task he faced filming wholly in Iran. With a mischievous eye looking to satirize us here in the West with our “liberated” penchant for serial marriages, Farhadi hones in on a married couple on the brink of divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) had lived in a Paris suburb with his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) but their union had not resulted in children. For her part Marie has had two young ones from her now-divorced Belgian husband: Lucie (Pauline Burlet), now eighteen, and little Lea (Jeanne Jestin), now about seven. With those two kids living with her, she takes on another child, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), whose father, Samir (Tahar Rahim), is her intended third husband. Already pregnant for two months with Samir’s child, she might look forward to at least some years of wedded satisfaction, but there are complications. Samir’s wife is still alive, albeit in a vegetative state for eight months, a coma that Samir’s daughter Lucie blames on Marie, her mother, noting that mom had been carrying on an affair with Samir even before Samir’s wife lapsed into her unfortunate state attached to machines.
You can’t get much more dysfunctional than this family. Loud arguments from the adults punctuate the screen combined with melodramatic flourishes from the children. Lucie would like to break up her mom’s relationship with Samir. Marie dislikes Ahmad, as divorcing couples are wont to feel, despite what you hear about “amicable splits.” Fouad is not fond of anyone but his young sister, resisting all efforts of his prospective stepmother. And something may be going on between Samir, who owns a dry cleaning establishment in this dreary Paris suburb, and his assistant, Naima!
The ensemble has done terrific work. Notwithstanding the difficulties that directors have working with children, we are surprised by how realistic the terminally pouting and sometimes door-kicking Elyes Aguis comes across, truly a boy who is frightened by changes whose origin he is too young to comprehend. Pauline Burlet is especially good in the role of the teen Lucie, who charges the atmosphere by revealing a secret that she should have kept to herself for a lifetime but which becomes the major twist of the film. We can see how Berenice Bejo would capture the accolades of the folks at Cannes this year, taking away the Best Actress award while the film won the Ecumenical Jury prize and secured a nomination for the Palme d’Or.
Oh yes, another moral for those of us who insist that every story must have more than one: if you’ve failed at two marriages, the men disappearing on you to other parts of the world, chill out: don’t be in such a hurry to find a third husband. Iran chose THE PAST as its Oscar nominee for a movie opening in 2013.
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