Just like many of his fellow countrymen, including compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has been forced to ply his trade outside his homeland's borders under threat of government intervention. Whatever the logistics, however, Farhadi's latest domestic drama, The Past, while produced in France, is a seamless translation of both his stylistic and thematic sensibilities. Farhadi arrived on an international level with 2011's A Separation, a typically knotty character study which netted awards all the way from festivals to the Academy. He'd done similar, equally compelling work prior to his breakthrough (2009's About Elly stands as arguably his strongest film), but with an increased eye on Middle Eastern cinema in the wake of Kiarostami's Certified Copy and the jailing of the more radical, uncompromising Jafar Panahi, coupled with the film's heart-tugging narrative, A Separation arrived at an opportune time for his country's rise to international cinematic prominence. The Past parlays this goodwill with even more wide-reaching potential, extending Farhadi's streak of strong work while cementing him as one of world cinema's most universal storytellers.
Starring Bérénice Bejo and Tahar Rahim (of The Artist and A Prophet renown, respectively) as Marie and Samir, a couple with plans for proper matrimony, but with unsettled prior relationships, the film unravels methodically but with great precision. Farhadi has established a unique voice through such attention to narrative detail, and though he remains a more gifted writer than aesthetic craftsman, his work has consistently evidenced a strong sense of both interior space and blocking. As in his prior work, then, the film's intrigue gathers gradually as characters reveal secrets and motivations are slowly unveiled. It's to Farhadi's credit that he's retained his thematic ambition yet kept his scale commendably modest even as he's garnered a larger audience and presumably the means for a more lavishly scaled production. If anything, The Past is Farhadi's most complex, involved narrative yet.
When Marie's estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to France from Iran after a four-year absence to finalize their divorce, he's met with the news that Marie is planning on moving forward and starting a family with Samir and his two kids. From this rather simple premise, Farhadi, as the film's title suggests, weaves years' worth of experiences and peripheral characters into a tapestry of mysterious motivations and buried secrets. Each character in the film seemingly holds a key to relieving another's tension, with Bejo's Marie inviting a firestorm of emotion when she brings these two men under the same roof with a few generations worth of offspring adding to the calamity.
As he did with both A Separation and About Elly, Farhadi utilizes living quarters as an area of adversity rather than comfort, the claustrophobic interiors and reflective surfaces of the family home adding to the gathering stress. The film eventually, perhaps inevitably, strains under such duress, with each new revelation stretching the plot perilously close to the melodramatic territory Farhadi's had done well avoiding up to now. Nevertheless, The Past is a stirring, impressively acted piece of work, and another detailed account of familial nuance from a director working at a seemingly effortless clip, no matter the locale.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 15—26.