Where Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation chronicled the disintegration of a marriage, The Past, the Iranian writer-director’s follow-up, begins four years after the marriage of its central characters has ended. In the instantly transfixing opening sequence Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) find each other on either side of an immense pane of glass, gesturing, mouthing words, neither of them audible to the other or to us. Ahmad has flown to Paris from Tehran to finalize the divorce. Marie comes to fetch Ahmad from the airport in a borrowed car—borrowed from whom she won’t say, though the dry cleaning dangling in the back is conspicuous. This soon-to-be ex-couple are pleasant with each other, all grievances presumably having lost their venom years ago. Indeed, the complicated yet completely coherent drama about to unfold is generated not from tensions between Ahmad and Marie but from within a larger circle of characters, all of whom, whether children or adults, present or absent, are somehow ensnared in the powerful force that gives the film its title.
Marie drives Ahmad to her home—his former home—where he finds in her backyard two children, one being the youngest of Marie’s daughters from another relationship, the other being a little boy Ahmad has never met. During the first third or so of The Past Farhadi is careful not to rush exposition, focusing neither on explaining the past or foreshadowing the future, and instead living fully in the moment. He knows that everything to come will carry more weight after we’ve done some of our own detective work, spent time coming to know these characters in a more organic method. Marie’s home, for example, is cluttered and wears layers of varied inhabitants. Messes have meaning, as does the dynamic between she and that temperamental little boy. Let’s not get too precious about spoilers: that boy is the son of Marie’s new partner, Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), who Marie wants to marry, thus the sudden urge to sign papers. Marie hasn’t informed Ahmad of the details of her current situation, though the reasons for her continual withholding grow only more complex as the story continues. Marie’s teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) disapproves of her mother’s new relationship so vehemently that she refuses to come home. Is this simply a matter of Lucie’s unwillingness to allow an intruder into her already broken family? Is there something more at stake?
I fear that if I overemphasize the immaculate structuring of The Past I’ll give the impression that it’s been dramaturged within an inch of its life—nothing could be farther from the truth. Farhadi simply excels at character and plot development to a degree that’s extremely rare in adult, intellectually sophisticated, emotionally resonant drama. Some of what’s revealed here is devastating, yet by the time such revelations arise we’ve beheld a boggling geometry of allegiances and have cause to feel such investment in every character that it becomes impossible to delineate who’s supposed to be villain, who hero. This is a moral tale in the most modern sense, by which I mean there’s no moral to be surmised, only recognized, worked through, considered. And while Farhadi’s style is relatively straightforward and chronological, utilizing hard cuts, no score and brilliant naturalistic performances, there is something about his approach to working through moral quandaries that, like the mysterious scenes that open and close The Past, recall the films of Kieślowski. Which is meant as a high compliment.