The Past (Le Passé)

Directed By: Asghar Farhadi

Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, and Ali Mosaffa

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has gotten it wrong on many, many occasions.  With this year's Oscar nominations to be announced later this week, let's talk about a film the Academy won't even consider nominating.  When the Academy announced its short list of foreign language film contenders — an all-inclusive list of potential nominees — several films were noticeably absent.  The biggest snub was arguably Asghar Farhadi's intense, winding family drama The Past.  This captivating piece of cinema won't get the credit it deserves from the Academy, but I will certainly laud the film here and now.

For Iranian Samir (Tahar Rahim), it's been four years since he's seen his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo).  Not under the happiest of circumstances, he returns to Paris to see her.  He’s come back from Tehran at Marie's request to finalize their divorce and to visit with her daughters from her previous marriage.  Upon arriving, he is picked up by Marie.  Instead of going to the hotel room that he had requested she book, Marie ends up having him stay at her place.  While Samir is happy to see Marie’s daughters Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), Fouad (Elues Aguis), the new kid on the block, makes things a bit awkward for him.  This is especially the case considering that Fouad is the son of Marie's next husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who also lives there.

Recognizing that Marie is trying to send a vindictive message to him, Samir just wants to sign the papers and go back home.  Things aren't quite that simple, however.  Marie’s eldest daughter Lucie has been adamantly opposed to her relationship with Ahmad and has been acting out as of late because of this.  She's mostly been staying out late to avoid seeing Ahmad.  Marie asks Samir to talk to her.  When he does, he learns that Lucie is concerned about the pending nuptials because of the way her mom's relationship with Ahmad began.  Marie and Ahmad had an affair while they were both married.  While their romance has blossomed, Ahmad's wife drank a bottle of detergent in an attempted suicide that’s left her in a vegetative state for the past eight months.  According to Lucie, Ahmad's depressed wife found out about her cheating husband prior to her tragic decision.  With this bombshell information in hand, Samir is unable to just head back home to Tehran as he wishes.

Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) is really talented at making tense family dramas that elevate the genre.  Playing more like a mystery with plenty of twists and turns in the plot, Farhadi's The Past starts as a slow, brooding film but gradually reels in the audience.  In actuality, this is both the film's greatest strength and weakness.  As more and more clues are revealed about what really happened to Ahmad's wife, the story becomes increasingly unpredictable.  It's downright engrossing.  At the same time, it takes about a half hour to really get into the film given its slow start.  By this time, some viewers will have lost interest in the movie.

Farhadi always leaves an imprint on his films, and the mark he leaves on The Past is a very powerful one.  Stylistically, one of the things that stands out to me is Farhadi's use of silence to turn ordinary moments into extraordinary ones. There are many scenes during which we see his actors' lips moving but hear nothing coming out of them.  This stylistic flourish adds emphasis to these moments.  Each time Farhadi employs this technique, we know what his characters are doing and saying.  This just makes us think about the film a little harder during these moments.  In a film where little things can entirely alter one's interpretation of the story as clues are continuously revealed, Farhadi's use of this technique is invaluable.  It allows his audience to digest all the rich, beautiful subtleties of the film.

The acting is superb as well.  For her part as the stressed mother and lover Marie, Bérénice Bejo really brings a fiery passion to the screen.  Demonstrating some serious acting chops to the film, The Artist star really shows us a different side of herself.  As Samir, Tahar Rahim gives a noble performance as this unlucky third party trying to prevent a train wreck in the lives of his loved ones. Rahim gives us a very intuitive character who really serves as a moral compass in this winding plot full of ethical dilemmas.  As the confused Ahmad, Ali Mosaffa gives us one conflicted character as well.  Torn between his vegetable wife and his loving fiancée, he deftly embodies the emotional complexity of this highly unorthodox love triangle.  Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't commend the child actors who portray Lucie, Léa, and Fouad.  They each bring joy, laughter, and sorrow to the big screen in just the right doses.

The Past is an outstanding piece of cinema and perhaps the best foreign film from 2013.  It's baffling that the Academy is ignoring a film of this quality.  It's a real shame.  Asghar Farhadi's latest film gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.