“The Past” is a compelling mystery tale wrapped in a riveting family drama, with the death throes of a marriage cloaking deeper, fouler things.
Working in France, director Asghar Farhadi (of 2012’s shattering Oscar winner “A Separation”) confronts grave, painful questions bleeding through several seamlessly overlapping stories. With a sure eye and hand he shows secrets and lies, resentment and private pain, turning literally poisonous.
The film opens with one couple trying to converse through a sound-deadening glass wall in an airport arrival lounge. It ends in a hospital ward with another pair struggling to communicate as one lies semi-comatose. At every turn characters struggle to connect, to make peace, to forgive. The price of failure is heartbreaking.
At the center of things are Parisian Marie (“The Artist’s” Bérénice Bejo, who won the Cannes best actress award for this performance) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returning after four years in Tehran to sign the paperwork finalizing their divorce. Her two children from a previous relationship are in her decrepit fixer-upper villa. So is the new man in her life, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and his son.
The well-meaning Ahmad treads lightly in this minefield. The estranged couple are not entirely out of love, and Ahmad dotes on Marie’s youngsters. The kids act out and wheedle the adults to take sides in their intergenerational conflicts. And the grown-ups have plenty of intrigue of their own. What does it mean that tough-skinned Marie has chosen Samir, who resembles Ahmad, as her latest lover? Has Samir, whose wife is in a vegetative state following an apparent suicide attempt, really moved on from that fraught relationship? Was she even aware of her husband’s affair?
Ahmad tries to play the diplomat, uncertain of what each warring party’s endgame actually is. As the cloud of confusion lifts, revealing shocking twists and surprises, we see that the inability to move beyond old hurts and forgive can have life-or-death consequences.
Farhadi expects viewers to be intelligent and perceptive, and richly rewards those alert observers. He constructs his story with geometrical precision even as he pulls the rug from under us. As the perspective shifts from character to character, we realize “The Past” is not the standard-issue domestic drama it seemed. It is a whodunit and, more important, a whydunit. Like Ahmad, we must find our way without a road map. The big reveal is gasp-worthy, turning on a trickling tear that means everything to a key character — who cannot see.
The play of cause and effect would feel over-calculated if it weren’t so naturalistically presented. The actors, even the children and supporting players, exude down-to-earth humanity and battle contradictory emotions. The production design, from the lived-in, half-painted interiors of Marie’s home to the sterile laundry of Samir’s dry-cleaning shop, grounds the film in realism while making thematic points.
This is a story about the ways the past marks us and whether we can ever remove those stains. The answer is disorienting and disturbing, as it should be.