Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi solidifies his status as one of cinema’s finest living dramatists with The Past, a superb follow-up to 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation that again situates audiences amid interpersonal, familial, and household crises. Working from a script that incisively plumbs a thicket of logistical and emotional complications, Farhadi’s film is set in France but concerns a fractured family of Iranian expats whose lives are thrown into disarray when Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns from Tehran after four years away at the request of estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo), who needs him to sign divorce papers so that she can marry new beau Samir (A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim). That union is made thornier by the fact that Samir’s wife, Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), is in a coma after a suicide attempt. Samir’s eight-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is taking the transition hard, albeit with greater grace than Marie’s angry teenage daughter from her first marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet).
Far from a very Brady commingling of disparate clans, this new family proves a chaotic muddle thrown into additional turmoil by the tensions that arise from Ahmad staying with Marie and Samir. Yet as in A Separation, Farhadi reveals details regarding his various players’ conditions — and the reasons for their discomfort and discontent — with a naturalistic, graceful hand. The expository information always rises naturally from the circumstances of scenes, lending the action a believability that continues even once bombshells begin detonating, first about Marie’s pregnancy (courtesy of Samir), and then — more disastrously for everyone involved, particularly Lucie — the causes of, and culpability behind, Céline’s suicide.
Again, Farhadi stages his action in corridors, cars, subways, and doorways that alternately box in or strand his protagonists, all of them often spied behind or separated by glass partitions, the director’s signature motif. Communication breakdowns run rampant in The Past, but even the eventual truth can’t prevent the coming tragedy, which springs forth from a series of revelations that provide nothing but further, irreconcilable heartache. Asking a doctor how he can know if tests on his comatose wife were successful, Samir is told, “In this situation, you can never be sure,” an uncertainty that soon extends to the issues of guilt, regret, and hopeless longing that engulf these characters who are inextricably intertwined, yet uniformly alone.
Bolstered by performances that convey profound grief and remorse without look-at-me histrionics, The Past is steeped in the believable micro details of its scenario while also expanding to universals. It’s a portrait of the way bitterness and fear conspire to drive people to rash actions and unwelcome consequences. More overpowering still is its masterfully composed, heartbreaking final scene of Samir visiting Céline at the hospital, culminating with a shot of a finger hoping to be squeezed by a lifeless hand. Farhadi’s film locates not only the desire to escape the past, but also the futile desire to hold tightly to it, so that it might again become the present.