Following several films (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly) that made a stir on the festival circuit, but never played in U.S. theaters, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi finally had a breakthrough two years ago with his masterpiece A Separation, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year and 60 more critics’ prizes. Like any great artist, however, he’s not one to rest on his laurels, and The Past, his masterful follow-up, veers in an unexpected direction. As if in horror of being pigeonholed, he’s set the new film in Paris, fashioning a screenplay that features only one significant Iranian character. This, perhaps, is in response to foreigners who downplayed A Separation’s heartbreaking, universal themes to insist on its cultural specificity. (They weren’t wrong, necessarily; they just misplaced the emphasis.) The result demonstrates that Farhadi, who is cinema’s heir to the likes of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, is so deft at ingenious narrative construction and intricate character development that he can make first-rate dramas in any country and/or language he likes.
He can work with movie stars, too. Bérénice Bejo, the French actress whose toothy grin lit up The Artist, digs in deep here as Marie, a single mother preparing to marry her boyfriend, Samir (Tahir Rahim). Before she can do that, though, she needs to finally, belatedly divorce Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the Iranian man with whom she broke up with four years earlier. Arriving in Paris from Tehran to sign the necessary papers, Ahmad immediately finds himself thrown into the middle of a volatile situation, with complications that include his relationship with his former stepchildren, the presence of Samir’s young son (with whom he’s expected to share a room), and the inconvenient fact that Samir, too, is technically still married, though his wife lies in a deep coma following a failed suicide attempt. As in A Separation, what initially seems fairly straightforward grows increasingly fraught and complex as each successive layer gets peeled away, until it’s nearly impossible not to empathize with everybody on-screen at once.
This time, there might be one too many layers: Information regarding Samir’s wife, who lies (quite literally) at the heart of the story, gets parceled out piecemeal over the course of the entire movie, which has the effect of making the last couple of revelations (involving machinations by a minor character) feel like superficial plot twists. Most of what transpires, however, is anything but surface-level, conveying the heavy weight of shared history that gives the movie its title. It’s another painfully precise disquisition on the overwhelming messiness of human nature, with multiple children caught in the crossfire this time. All three of the lead actors are terrific (as is Pauline Burlet, playing Marie’s teenage daughter), but Farhadi is the kind of filmmaker who reserves his most cathartic moment for a character who’s barely even seen, concluding the story on a pitch-perfect note of painful uncertainty. His future looks uncommonly bright.