The Past

Art & Culture

Asghar Farhadi is an Iranian director, whose previous film, A Separation, was one of the best of 2011. His latest film, while not quite reaching those very high standards, is still excellent, and well worth seeing.

It starts at the airport, where Marie (Berenice Bejo) waits for her husband, who has come from Iran to finalise their divorce. They still bicker, but greater complications lie in wait for Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). Marie is living with her two daughters, Lucie and Lea, both of whom were close to Ahmad when he lived with their mother. But Marie also has a new man in her life, Amir (Tahar Rahim), and Samir not only has a son, Fouad, but a wife in a coma in the hospital. And if that's not enough, teenage Lucie is furious with her mother, while Fouad is just furious. Ahmad lands right in the middle of this domestic bouillabaise with a sickening thud. 

He's uncomfortable with the domestic tensions, but Marie is asking him to talk to Marie. He's also uncomfortable with being around Samir (and vice versa), while the revelations that gradually emerge simply ratchet up the tensions by several notches. I won't tell you what they are, but suffice it to say that matters are not helped by the continuing revelations.

What I like best about the film is its subtle and detailed depiction of complex family dynamics. There are no villains, no one is Bad, they're all just complicated people trying to manage an impossible situation. The film's weakness, such as it is, is its increasing reliance on these same revelations and crises as if writer/director Farhadi didn't trust the audience to hang in there with the core plot, and kept feeling the need to embellish it with another turn of the screw. 

I also like the way the film shows many different perspectives. At first we feel this is Ahmad's film, but at different points most of the other main characters are allowed to show or express what is going on for them or we simply see them as the protagonist. Paradoxically, this diversity of viewpoint means that the film starts to lose focus as it moves away from a single perspective, and begins to follow its tributaries rather than the main river. It may seem unreasonable of to complain about the very thing I admire, but a film as subtle as this can cope with complex feedback.

I have nothing but praise for the acting, from adults and children alike, and for the sense of life as it is lived – quite an achievement for an Iranian director working in France. Farhadi doesn't resort to either extreme of glamour or grubbiness in his depiction of his characters' lives. He just shows a style of life that is thoroughly credible.

A Separation was (and is) an extremely powerful film with the single focus of a relationship at the end of its tether – Marie and Ahmad four years earlier, perhaps. In that film too, revelations and buried truths emerge in the course of the quest for honesty. But whereas in the earlier film, they feel organic and essential, here they come to feel more arbitrary and verging on the melodramatic. I only make these slight criticisms because the film is good, and could have been even better. I'd still urge you to see it.