Ahmad (Mosaffa) reunites with estranged wife Marie (Bejo) in Paris to sign their divorce papers. There he finds she has a new partner (Rahim) with a young son and a wife in a coma.
There are parallels to be drawn between Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation and Alexander Payne’s Oscar-winning The Descendants. Both have a rumpled protaganist (Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa in the Clooney role), a woman in a coma and the toxic fallout of a clan in conflict. Each has an angry daughter, self-destructing in the face of her shattered family life, and a closet full of skeletons.
There, though, the comparisons end, for The Past is a colder, less comforting piece, shorn of vaudevillian touches to soften its harsher realities. Ostensibly, it follows Ali Mosaffa’s absentee father and estranged husband as he returns from Tehran to his old family home in Paris. His wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), having
been stood up before, hasn’t bothered to book a hotel room, leaving him sharing a bunk with her new boyfriend’s spitfire of a son. Needless to say, the kid is no more thrilled than he is.
While the practically minded Ahmad sets to work calming rows, mopping up spillages and fixing up rust-bucket bikes, Marie struggles with her emotionally mute boyfriend (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) and a daughter (Pauline Burlet) raging against her relationship with a man whose wife remains in a coma. As this fraying woman, Bejo is a revelation, turning in a performance as far from The Artist’s giddy Peppy Miller as it’s possible to get, while Mosaffa and Rahim prowl around each other like stags looking for an excuse to lock antlers.
The story unfolds with equal subtlety. Like the greatest chroniclers of family life, Yasujiro Ozu and Terence Davies, Farhadi shoots with an intimate camera that gazes on these struggling but well-meaning people with understanding rather than judgment. Backstories are hinted at in snatched conversations, occasional moments of intimacy and body language, rather than great thumps of exposition. We’re left to guess at the reasons Ahmad left in the first place — a history of depression is raised and just as quickly dropped — and if the ending tiptoes towards mild contrivance, it’s easy to forgive in context.
Farhadi, who speaks no French, sets the drama in a grey, nondescript Paris several arrondissements from the fairy-tale boulevards of the Champs-Élysées. The only music comes from the percussion of steady rain that seems to fall without ceasing. As Tolstoy once wrote, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This one gets wet too.
A bold, honest film about family life that showcases a terrifically unpeppy turn from Bejo.