The Past (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Having not seen each other for four years, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) comes to pick up Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport. But it is not exactly a happy reunion. They have business to finalize and it involves making their divorce official so that Marie can legally marry her boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir has a young son (Elyes Aguis) and a wife who is in a coma. Marie’s daughter from another man, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), disapproves of the relationship because she is convinced she knows a certain truth about how and why Samir’s wife has ended up in her current state.
There is a great movie hidden inside “The Past,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, but it is nowhere in sight during the first hour. While part of the mystery involves a subtle shift in perspective, much of the exposition and rising action are just above standard marriage drama material that is occasionally interesting because there the plot proves fluid. Just when one expects that the screenplay has settled and is ready to explore its current track, it gets derailed and the subject is an entirely different beast.
Such an approach is not always effective. Part of the problem is this: just when the material is about hit on a particular insight about Marie’s relationship with the two men, it moves on and so we are deprived of the intricacies of human drama. It is a shame because Ahmad, Samir, and Marie are all hurting in some way. They tend to hang onto delusions and hope that when enough time passes, somehow the problems will be less severe or end up working themselves out. This breeds a lot of frustration inside them. Notice how Marie and Samir deal with the children when they do something wrong. It is as if some of the words the parents use to chastise their children are supposed to be aimed at themselves.
I enjoyed how the kids are written. Instead of functioning as mere background characters or relying on cute, it shows that they are capable of real thoughts. They hear the ugly fights between the adults. Afterwards, they think about the words thrown around. The scene involving Fouad talking about a machine keeping his mother alive has real gravity. He seems to have a lot of anger and a part of it is a lack of closure. We get the sense that neither Marie nor Samir has really talked to him about what being in a coma means and what it might entail.
The drama comes into focus—finally—during the latter half where the search for the truth is vigorous and intense. No easy answer or solution is offered. The closer we look at the characters, their exhaustion is all the more apparent. At some point I wondered if they even really cared about the truth anymore. Did they just want to fight because it is a state they have gotten accustomed to? Is it the easier alternative? But then the camera focuses on Samir and the way he deals with the information that faces him. The final scene is memorable but it is without a shadow of doubt that it could have been a lot more meaningful if the rest of the picture had been as astutely written and executed.
Despite a handful of highly engaging scenes, “Le passé” still feels too long. This can be attributed to the tease that is the first half, peeling off layers and getting us to think it will move forward a certain way only to dispose of it. It gets exhausting—and annoying—after a while and so when the strong second half comes around we spend some our time and energy being doubtful instead of fully engrossed.