Some years I have eased myself into TIFF with a selection that was light, airy, and joyous.
This wasn’t one of those years.
THE PAST (LE PASSÉ) is the latest film from Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning director of A SEPARATION. This time his story is set in Paris, where a once-married couple named Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) reunite to finalize their divorce. When Ahmad is subtly reintroduced to Marie’s daughters, a series of difficult truths start to bubble to the surface. Suddenly the past – both distant and recent – is having a deep effect on the present. When this happens, all involved have to face up to the mistakes they’ve made.
Most of THE PAST plays as heavy drama at a low simmer. The stakes are high, with every mistake made costing another person dearly. It’s a story that has been told several times before, the sort with people seeking forgiveness, often from themselves. Many of these mistakes, and their repercussions, are dealt with in a quiet, grounded, and subtle fashion.
Most of them, but not all of them. A story like this leaves one waiting for an outburst, and indeed we get it.
No doubt what will draw many people into this film is to see what Farhadi comes back with after his prize-winning film. It’s a position that inevitably sets a viewer up for a letdown, since it’s so very difficult for any artist to catch lightning in a bottle twice in a row. So to avoid any and all letdown, let’s state the obvious: no, THE PAST is not A SEPARATION, but that shouldn’t take away anything from what this film achieves.
What Farhadi has done is build a story that has a lot of intricate pieces – fragments of ideas that each could have been expanded upon and turned into fables all their own. Instead of choosing from them, he brings them together like a mosaic in a way that lets light refract off one idea and colour another one in an interesting way. Pretty soon, all those fragments and pieces come together to form something lovely, rustic, and unexpected.
In the weeks leading up to TIFF, I actually began to hear some negative reaction to THE PAST. Having now seen the film, but not having read much into what others had a problem with, I can only guess it has to do with details a plot point unveiled in the film’s final act. If viewers are going to resist the film, they’ll resist it due to this point, which may strike some as a step too far down the path.
My hope is that people soak up THE PAST warts-and-all. After all, that’s what it wants us to understand about our lives: that we make mistakes. What’s fascinating – what makes THE PAST a really good film – is how we deal with those mistakes, and whether we feel that we need to relive them in order to correct them.