The Past (Le Passé) – Movie Review

The past

Melissa Oey reviews The Past, the newest movie from Asghar Farhadi, the director responsible for the Academy Award winning film, A Separation:

After having left Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and her two daughters four years ago, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris and in particular, the family home, to finalise their divorce papers and ease what has become an acrimonious relationship between Marie and her eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet). What could otherwise be classified as a ‘family drama’ kicks into high gear when it is discovered that Lucie’s resentment of her mother reeks a little of disgust and that part of the issue is Marie’s current partner, Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose wife was only recently declared comatose.

When the last red herring is exposed and discarded, when every secret is out and all the feelings confronted, you are exhausted and confused, but not with the story. The complex narrative structure leads you to partake in an insipid blame game and decides that you empathise with characters whose mistakes would, on paper, seem unforgiveable. This final realisation points to the subliminal level at which writer/director Asghar Farhadi cements the film’s stated objective – that of exploring the complicated nature of dilemmas, particularly in choosing between faithfulness to your past or to your future (and perhaps then, your present self).

While 12 Years a Slave is a movie to break you, The Past (originally titled Le Passé) picks up all the pieces and haphazardly patches them into place. There’ll be cracks on the surfaces, but you’ll have a hold on the imperfection that is your humanity. How? It comforts you about decisions made in those less certain moments in your life. Where things went wrong, be sure that there is no one person to blame just as there is no one person unhurt by your reality. Yeah, it’s a heavy movie but it doesn’t drag you down.

Every seemingly innocuous decision can have consequences that are quite far-reaching or even mortal, but even that doesn’t make you a bad person per se. Every moment counts? I’m picturing Sliding Doors and Gwyneth’s 90s pixie do. What we’re thrown into when the film begins is the devastating consequences of bad decisions made left, right and centre but what you quickly learn is that every responsible character acted only in response to their (at times misguided, yet equally exasperating) sense of isolation.

In turn, the film challenges the value of loyalty and the supposed importance of keeping promises. It makes you realise that, while keeping your word is important for pragmatic reasons, it is not what necessarily determines the integrity of a person. Instead, it is living honestly that is overwhelmingly crucial.

What’s impressive is the detail to which each character, their motivations, their insecurities and their role in the tragedy unravelling before you, is explored, but without inducing tedium. Each gesture is honest and doesn’t betray the character at hand.

This is especially in the case of child actors Jeanne Jestin (Léa), Marie’s younger daughter, and Elyes Aguis (Fouad), Samir’s five year old son. The delivery of a raised eyebrow, a lip quiver or a stifled apology brings sincerity to what could otherwise be the backdrop to General Hospital. These children round out their adult counterparts, reminding us not just of unforeseen consequences of our mistakes but also how each of us contribute to this world in various social capacities. Fouad’s love of Marie shows us that a woman who might be dismissively defined by her ‘poor choices’ is still be the best mother a kid never had; that vindictiveness helps nothing.

Accolades and prizes don’t normally sway me, except into thinking there is a lot I could be disappointed about. I will, however, tip my hat in appreciation of what could easily be my favourite movie of 2014 (early though it may be), winning the Cannes’ Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, an award whose objective is to “honour works of artistic quality which witnesses to the power of film to reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings as well as their hopes”.

When asked which culture this French film by an Iranian director represented most, Farhadi and each of the film’s main stars independently stated it was neither and that The Past is a human story. You, as human, go.

melissa oey


Review by Melissa Oey