REVIEW: Le passé [The Past] [2013]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 130 minutes | Release Date: June 19th, 2013 (Iran)
Studio: Falcon Films / Sony Pictures Classics
Director(s): Asghar Farhadi
Writer(s): Asghar Farhadi

“Some things can’t be forgiven”

If A Separation didn’t cause writer/director Asghar Farhadi to be revered as an auteur who understood domestic strife and illness’ lasting effect on those left to pick up the pieces, you better believe he is now. Switching to France for Le passé [The Past], the filmmaker brings us into an interesting clash of worlds for Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning after four years of estrangement from soon-to-be ex-wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). This pairing of ethnicities underlies the action, especially with prospective fiancé Samir (Tahar Rahim) being of Persian descent too. But while initial appearances expose what could be a commentary on such things like choosing which life to live before diving headfirst, Farhadi soon proves those tensions to be a springboard towards a much more intimate web of misperception, deceit, and guilt. Copious amounts of guilt.

We all live with choices. Do we diet? Exercise? Move for work? Drop everything for the love of our lives? Risk everything for someone who could be that love? Or do we revel in stagnancy hoping life comes to us because the crippling fear of the unknown is too difficult to endure? And what if our anxiety towards that future stems from the fact we personally sabotaged our chance for happiness? What if the potential for joy comes as a result of a deed so heinous and unforgivable that any opportunity for a smile turns your stomach into knots because you know the price paid? How do you fill in the blanks for those who think the truth about a tough situation is light years from what happened? And can anyone truly expunge the past from his memory once revealed?

These are the questions Farhadi gradually plants as the awkward situation onscreen unfolds into a sprawling drama bonded by connections we’d never think to imagine. You only have to see Bejo’s reaction to Ahmad asking if another man lives with her to understand her guilt and duplicitous refusal to be one hundred percent honest. Here he’s just arrived from Tehran, is told he has no hotel room and will have to stay with her and her daughters from a previous marriage, and the first person encountered at the house is the eight-year old son of the man his wife decided to finalize their divorce for. Then, amidst the chaos this grenade is bound to cause within an already volatile environment, she leaves for work after helping the boy devolve into a tantrum. What has Ahmad walked into?

The relationships are tenuous at best as only little Léa (Jeanne Jestin) is in good graces with all involved. Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) is justifiably angry at living with someone who isn’t his mother, said mother is revealed to be in a suicide-induced coma, and Marie’s eldest Luci (Pauline Burlet) is so fed up with the revolving door of failed father figures that she barely returns home to sleep before leaving again in the morning. Hypotheses that Marie only chose now to send for Ahmad so he could play mediator between she and Luci seem more than plausible, the timing of her union with Samir comes into question against the date his wife fell ill, and it all becomes one argument after another with each character made to feel less than cognizant of what’s really going on.

And the honest truth is that none of them actually know. Even those who think they do only have one side of the tale-the one warped and twisted from their own vantage point’s emotional roller coaster. There must be more to the rift between Marie and Luci hidden underneath the surface but no one knows how to chip away at their defenses. Ahmad is the one person universally trusted to play the part, but even he is unsure how far to dig or whether he should. At what point will he realize this part of his life is over? He isn’t the girls’ father, he hasn’t seen Marie in four years, and yet here he is unwittingly thrust in the middle to simultaneously save the day and exit their lives once and for all.

But that’s not enough intrigue-no, Farhadi yearns to complicate things so we’re emotionally scarred exiting the theater. He drops bombshell after bombshell of psychological trauma leading into a domino effect of immeasurable proportions all radiating out of Marie and Samir’s adulterous love. Despite that cardinal sin, though, he finds a way to still force us into empathizing with the transgressors. We pass blame onto those in close proximity already shouldering their own, forgetting how nothing anyone could have done is worse than the couple’s initial amorality. There’s a victim, a little boy’s mother driven suicidal and we still gloss over her husband’s cheating. There were reasons as there always are, but we should know who to point fingers at whether the revelations soon admitted in tear-streaked confessions are true or not.

Farhdai meticulously sets it all into motion with us as ignorant to the facts and driven to find a solution as Ahmad. Mosaffa is a saint trying his best in an impossible situation anyone else would have refused to enter, constantly getting thrown under the bus despite simply providing a sounding board for the others to air their grievances and crimes. Bejo and Rahim are both tightly wound messes flying off the handle with little provocation because neither knows exactly where they are or if they should remain save for the new human life binding them forever. And the children watch every fight, hear every word, and cower in innocent fear devoid of the capacity to understand where the yelling comes from or if it will ever stop. Aguis and Jestin will shatter your hearts on more than one occasion.

It’s neither them nor Burlet’s Luci trapped in a precarious position of her own doing that fluctuates between guilt, anger, regret, and sanctimonious pleasure that will reach into your chest and grab hold, though. No, that honor belongs to a single solitary tear implausibly falling during the final scene of the film. This one drop projects the suffering of all and the hope for tomorrow; condemning and forgiving at the same time, wordlessly and unseen by anyone but us. We don’t know what will become of these characters, whether they’ll forgive themselves for what they’ve done or for admitting they’d do it all again if given a second chance. But that tear tells us there’s a chance for love to survive where it had been buried within shame and disgrace. The past may be the past, but the present and future can never escape it.

[1] Left to right: Tahar Rahim as Samir and Bérénice Bejo as Marie
Photo by Carole Bethuel © 2013, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to right: Tahar Rahim as Samir and Bérénice Bejo as Marie
Photo by Carole Bethuel © 2013, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Elyes Aguis as Fouad
Photo by Carole Bethuel © 2013, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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