Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) reunites with his estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) to finalise their divorce, but soon finds himself drawn into the domestic struggle between Marie, her new partner Samir (Tahar Rahim), Marie’s eldest daughter and the secrets they keep from one another.
With A Separation, director Asghar Farhadi proved that he has a skill for acutely observed domestic drama, and this theme carries on through The Past. Almost every character in the film is desperate to live their lives and leave the past behind them but this proves impossible, as their past surely informs their presents, and their futures.
Bérénice Bejo plays anything but the sweet and warm character we saw her bring to life in The Artist; Marie comes off as a selfish and angry woman who is determined to do what she wants, with little regard for the consequences. Bejo is a beautiful woman but she manages to make Marie ugly, even as we learn more about the character. The more we learn about Marie, the more we can understand why her relationship with Ahmad broke down, and Ali Mossafa makes the character warm and understanding with a weakness for helping people. Tahar Rahim plays Samir as a man conflicted but gentle, a man wife languishes in a coma after a suicide attempt and he seems haunted by her. One of the standout performances comes from Elyes Aguis, who plays Samir’s young son. Aguis is Samir’s link to the past and he holds on to this with a childlike stubbornness, his questioning of the change in his life is right on the nose and, even though he is mischievous, Aguis’s simple performance is moving and engaging.
The running time, at 130 minutes is not brief, but this time allows the pot of emotions and entanglements in the film to simmer, eventually boiling over and forcing the characters to confront the issues that are holding them back. Farhadi hones in on the people who find themselves in the house and picks apart the carefully constructed webs of secrets and lies that they have cast. Tension builds throughout the film, leading to one confrontation after another, but this is so well done that the audience is as gripped and engaged as we would be watching a thriller. In fact, this is what The Past becomes; an emotional thriller, minus the melodrama and hysterics that could so easily accompany such a piece.
The Past is an engaging domestic thriller where secrets and lies collide with spectacular emotional result. Mossafa, Bejo and Aguis shine through in a film carefully constructed and deliberately pulled apart.