Despite having directed superb films for many years, after the rapturous acclaim for A Separation, the pressure for Asghar Farhadi to craft a film of similar calibre must have been tremendous. His new film to debut on the Croisette is a fulfillment of the talent that has recently engaged cinephile communities.
An expertly calibrated melodrama, The Past continues to solidify Farhadi’s auteurial trademark of crafting cautionary family-oriented stories. This effort is a labyrinth of brilliant convolution as it explores the deception, misunderstanding, and manipulation that divide an already estranged, disjointed family. Dubiously single, after Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has separated from her husband and Samir’s (Tahar Rahim) wife lies in a coma following a suicide attempt, Marie and Samir have become lovers, and are expecting the birth of their first child together. When Marie’s husband Ahmad returns to France from Iran to finalize their divorce, his presence ignites dialogue between the players that sets The Past in motion. Constantly weighing whether ignorance of a loved one’s deception is better than understanding how much one has been manipulated, The Past takes this conundrum and keeps the audience evaluating which of the two causes more harm.
Along with the strength of Farhadi’s writing, The Past is grounded by a dynamic, balanced ensemble. In a cast where every actor’s contribution is essential to the success of the film, the young actors who portray the children of Samir and Marie are particularly impressive, even if by virtue of surprise. In a revelatory debut performance, Elyes Aguis as Fouad is controlled and committed as he provides the soul to the film, playing Samir’s only child. He effectively demonstrates how confused, frustrated and guilty the children of broken families feel as they hopefully look to their parents for the stability and attention they have never truly known. In a scene with Rahim in the Metro, Fouad is heart-wrenching as he pleads in disappointment at once again being plucked from a family that he has begun to feel settled into. Pauline Burlet as Marie’s eldest daughter Lucie is crucial to the film’s development, functioning as a catalyst for the big reveals that make The Past so tense. She is establishing herself as an actor with a cohesive presence, having previously proven her ability to seamlessly enable transitions while playing a young manifestation of Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
The Past is one of the most exciting films at Cannes thus far. Compelling because it demonstrates that deceit is such a complex concept, and perhaps because very different moral stakes are at work in any scenario, it shows us that those who try the most to put the blame on others (Marie and Samir), are the ones most responsible for the turmoil within this extended family. A reliable director of actors, and quite possibly the most gifted writer currently working in film, Asghar Farhadi’s output remains as fresh and promising as ever.