What could Asghar Farhadi do for an encore? The Iranian director's brilliant film A Separation had won 2011's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But actually Separation was easily the best film in any language that year or since -- a stunning, compelling, suspenseful family drama that in overview and detail was an essay on life, law and religion, with roots in Iran but with universal social themes.
Farhadi's new film has put any concerns about his long term future success just where they belong . . . in The Past. There are striking similarities to A Separation: strong writing, finely nuanced acting and a compelling, real life story well-told. Farhadi's sure hand guides us through plot complexity and the several characters' layered relationships with the ease of skill.
For Farhadi, time present and time past are both present in time future. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris to complete the paperwork of his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo). Marie lives with her two children from an earlier relationship. She intends to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim) her new lover. In a hospital nearby, Samir's wife hovers in a coma, the result of a suicide attempt which may or may not be the result of Samir's involvement with Marie.
As the story rolls out, the interactions open the characters to our review. Their involved, often conflicting feelings about each other are conveyed by their actions, more than their words. Distress flares briefly illuminate the landscape, rather than a well marked road map through rough terrain.
Farhadi doesn't pander. He doesn't tip his character's hands. Unlike Hollywood there is no right or wrong, heroes or villains, triumphant sunsets to ride off into. Like Marie, Samir and Ahmad, we only know pieces of the past from our limited view.
The events of the past are woven into the fabric of the present with the smooth pacing of a mystery's suspense. Do Ahmad and Marie still love each other? Should Ahmad stay? Does Marie love Samir and would it work if they marry? Why is Marie's daughter so upset by this situation? But even as we come to understand what happened and why, it does not provide easy answers . . . only more difficult choices.
Farhadi's writing, though not spare, sketches the characters with no wasted strokes. Dialogue brightly shines a light on not just the surface, but the inner recesses of character. The strength of writing presumably comes from Farhadi's background in the theater. But his skill in working with this international cast, expands the stage more than most theater productions.
As Marie, Berenice Bejo (Oscar WInner The Artist, the hilarious OSS117: Cairo Nest of Spies) has won the Best Actress Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for Cannes Palme d'Or and the Golden Globes Best Foreign Language Film. Hopefully the successes of A Separation and The Past will expose Farhadi to a wider international audience . . . a bright, creative future.