Playing as the first ever Brisbane International Film Festival curtain raiser presentation, Asghar Fahadi’s The Past is a powerful examination of guilt and love and how the choices we make can have far reaching implications for ourselves and those around us. Fahadi’s follow-up to his universally acclaimed A Separation – which last year won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – is a family drama of the highest order, devoid of the histrionics that pervade so many Hollywood narratives addressing similar subject matter. This film explores the fallout from divorce and the confusion and emotional upheaval that befall those caught in the middle.
The film opens with an apt visual metaphor as we meet Marie (Berenice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) at an airport, a glass wall between them reducing their capacity to communicate clearly. We soon discover that the pair are married but have been separated for four years, with Ahmad having returned to his native Iran. Summoned back to Paris by Marie to finalise divorce proceedings, Ahmad soon finds himself embroiled in the machinations of Marie’s relationship with her two daughters, new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his son Faoud (Elyes Aguis). Although he is not the father of either daughter (they are from a previous marriage), Ahmad feels a bond with the girls and enjoys a particularly close connection with Lucie (Pauline Burlet), whose relationship with Marie is fractured. As Ahmad steps in to try and broker a peace deal between mother and daughter, he learns that Marie is pregnant and plans to marry Samir, whose own wife remains in a coma in hospital after a failed suicide attempt. If it sounds convoluted and corny, it isn’t. The extended running time of over two hours allows Fahadi to tease out the various relationships and the events of the past that weigh heavily upon them.
There is great sense of realism in the way the lives of these people are portrayed, with the ramshackle house on the outskirts of Paris proving a physical embodiment of the emotional turmoil in which our various characters find themselves. In a role far removed from her terrific performance in The Artist, Bejo is sensational as Marie, a somewhat unlikeable person with a temper who continues to smoke heavily despite her pregnancy. Likewise, 18-year-old Burlet is a revelation as Lucie in a powerful performance as a daughter whose rebellion is driven by shame over her own actions and the impact they have had on the family. Young Faoud, meanwhile, is struggling to find a place for himself amidst the chaos and he acts out accordingly. The Past is very much a story about the working class – Marie works in a pharmacy, while Samir owns a dry cleaning business – and there is no romanticisation of life in Paris. These are real people living in the real world, whose actions have real consequences.
It is Ahmad who, somewhat reluctantly and against the advice of his friend Shahryar (Babak Karimi), takes on the role of detective-cum-mediator in an effort to mend the fissures tearing the family apart. It is an intricate narrative in which the relationships are layered and complex, with Mossafa embodying Ahmad with earnestness and compassion in another terrific performance. The strength of the script ensures that each scene brings a deeper insight into the characters and a greater understanding of why they are the way they are. They have all made mistakes, but we can sympathise with them as they strive for nothing more than the things we all want – love, happiness and security. Fahadi has drawn the very best from his talented cast, with Bejo finding the perfect balance between hot-headed insecurity and hopelessly romantic that earned her the Best Actress award at Cannes this year, while Burlet, who played a young Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, presents a heartbreaking turn as a teenager wracked by guilt and unable to face those she has wronged. From the lighting to the set design to the editing to the music, everything about this film is executed to the highest standard.