The Past (2013) Film Review

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What: Film Review
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Written by: Asghar Farhadi, adaptation by Massoumeh Lahidji
Produced by: Alexandre Mallet-Guy
Starring: Berenice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani
Running Time (in min.): 130 minutes
Language: French w/ English subtitles, Persian/Farsi w/ English and French subtitles
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

The Past (Le Passe) (2013)

Though the planet’s list of great living dramatists is incalculable and the members of the list inimitable, perhaps the purest and greatest of all is the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi’s 2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner A Separation was the best meditation on broken marriage since the American classic Kramer Vs. Kramer (Benton, 1977.) His newest feature, the Paris-set family drama The Past, stands as recent testament to his Chayefskyian talent. If only because they broke (or will break) any barriers between Western cinema and that of the blossoming new wave of Iranian filmmakers, Farhadi’s films are treasures of the priceless variety.

I think I chose to study film in university just for the type of experience I’m about to relate (I was seventeen when I started college, so I can’t be certain.) While I did not attend the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered and won its lead, Berenice Bejo, the Best Actress award, I was in Paris by coincidence during the film’s June 19, 2013 release. I saw Le Passe with partly screwy English-language subtitles at a newly renovated theatre just south of Sacre Couer; listening closely to conversations, I could see that I was the only native (read: monolingual) English-speaker at the 10:30 p.m. showing. The screening was not for press and the tickets were particularly inexpensive. Knowing what I know of the film now, I would pay infinitely more for a ticket, beg any and all publicists to get me in to see the film, or fly to any part of the United States that will begin playing the film towards the end of the year so that it can compete for Academy Awards in 2014. It is truly that significant a viewing experience.

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Like A Separation, Farhadi’s latest has a tiered ensemble, featuring three major leads on the ground level and several supporting performances that are themselves so great that the foremost group could be placed into the background and all would be just as beautiful and sad in the world of this great film. Once again, there is a family with classically Greek problems struggling to remain somewhat whole. The head of the family is Bejo’s Marie, an alluring, emotionally wrought pharmacist. She struggles between two men – her estranged husband, the calm but passive-aggressive Ahmad (a breakout performance by Ali Mosaffa) and her new quasi-fiancé, the tall, dark, and handsome Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet.) With Mosaffa, she had a now-teenaged daughter (Pauline Burlet, amazing) and the younger Lea (Jeanne Jestin.) And Samir, of course, has a precocious and too-smart-for-his-own-good firecracker (Elyes Aguis) with his wife. The wife, to whom Samir is still married, is in a vegetative coma.

Farhadi thrusts us into the narrative through Ali, who has returned to Paris from Iran to finalize his divorce at his wife’s behest. This is a good man and a sad one, and his pain reflects the loss of one the world’s most beautiful and, for better or for worse, impassioned women. As is wont to happen, more than a decade of complaints and resentments bubbles to the surface, and no plan the bickering couple arranged abroad holds together long. To make things worse, Samir has moved into Marie’s home, swaggering through kitchens in a self-governed dick-measuring contest with Ali.

Working as both writer and director here, Farhadi observes all too perfectly the results of all three adults’ behaviors on the children. Aguis and Jestin dominate the film’s first dramatic act and pull together two of the best pre-teen performances in memory. Their tantrums and play-fights set the stage for Burlet’s Lucie to buckle under the strain of a terrible secret. That they should each toes with the consistently brilliant Rahim and Bejo with such familiarity reflects their perfect casting by Elsa Pharaon.

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The beauty of Farhadi’s skill is the simplicity of his story, which does not so much reinvent wheels dramatically as it buffs and shines them to seem the height of luxurious moving art. Bejo, Mossaffa, Burlet and Rahim wield his dialogue like angry Shakespeareans, bellowing and cutting jokes and stabbing with the almighty Words at the screenwriter’s disposal. Hardly have we seen drama like this because, in so many films of all genre, the screenwriter donates his or her script to the attention of a director. If but Tony Kushner had the skills, the cache, or the inclination to have directed Angels in America, it may have looked something in scale and intelligence like this.

Seeing Le Passe in Paris reminds me how few will see it while so many made Grown Ups 2 a box-office smash earlier this month. Yes, you’ve heard people get upset about these things before, and no, griping about the state of our film culture makes no headway. That’s not my intention in this piece at all, though, especially knowing that Grown Ups 2 created a lot of jobs for a lot of people and made an even larger amount happy, distracted, and pleasant as a result. I accept it with joy as a necessary evil in our world. No, I only mean to compare the two to get at the necessity for viewership that Farhadi’s work beggars. I do not use necessity lightly or as a generalization, but here it can have no peer. The Past should be as required in film schools as Catcher in the Rye is in 11th grade English.

By writing reviews – or making videos, or conducting interviews with filmmakers, or keeping a film website active, as I’ve done these last few years – my hope is to have some impact on how and what people see, or how and what people feel about what they see. See Le Passe when it comes to the United States, if you can. And then tell me how and what you feel. You will feel.

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