Though it's already opened in Spokane, Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's film “The Past” played at AMC River Park Square for only a week. It's a good enough film to warrant a second run, though, which is what the Magic Lantern is giving it beginning today. Following is my review of “The Past,” which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
The Chinese philosopher-poet Lao Tzu once wrote, “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” But can we ever really know ourselves, much less anyone else?
If that question intrigues you, then you’ll likely appreciate the films of Asghar Farhadi. The Iranian-born director may not specialize in providing answers, but he shapes his questions in ways designed to lead you to your own conclusions.
Take “A Separation,” which won the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It tells the story of a middle-class Iranian couple, parents of a teenage girl, whose dueling emotional quandaries are pulling them apart. She wants to leave Iran, as much for her own sake as for the opportunities that living abroad will provide their daughter; he, on the other hand, feels bound to his home country by obligation – mainly to his father, whose mind is descending inexorably into dementia. What’s most striking is that our two protagonists, who presumably once loved each other, have lost the ability to communicate – and, in fact, talk almost obsessively at cross purposes. Each is so busy mustering personal arguments that neither can hear what the other is saying.
Much the same holds true in Farhadi’s new movie, “The Past,” which opens this weekend at the Magic Lantern Theater. Though “The Past” boasts a more involved plot than does “A Separation,” the film’s characters may be even less skilled at simple information-sharing.
Ahmad (Iranian actor Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris at the request of his estranged wife, Marie (French actress Bérénice Bejo) so they can finalize their divorce. Marie, who lives with her two daughters from a previous marriage, has taken up with a new man, Samir (French actor Tahir Rahim), who, with his pre-teen son, splits time between Marie’s house and his own apartment. Samir runs his own laundry business and is married, to a woman who happens to be in a coma, plot points that ultimately will prove important.
Ahmad’s arrival causes added tensions in the house, with Marie’s elder daughter acting like a sullen teen, Samir reacting just as petulantly, his son caught in a seemingly perpetual tantrum and Marie matching them all, mood for mood.
Ahmad tries to play peacemaker, even as he fights his own emotions. He’s hardly happy to have been replaced, after all. But Marie, for all her intensity, is only human, too. And she’s clearly harboring unresolved feelings for this man she once loved. Yet after their initial reconnection – an awkward moment in which the two are forced to mime their greetings – they quickly resort to the kind of bickering that was likely why they split up in the first place. Feelings of guilt, need and even desperation combine to prevent all of Farhadi’s characters from seeing what’s really going on – much less how to fix the problem.
That blindness, though – along with technical proficiency, a penchant for finding good actors and an ability to navigate artfully through maze-like narratives – embodies Farhadi’s strength as a filmmaker: He is uniquely skilled at creating complicated characters who are less good or bad than merely representative of how real humans tend to behave.
The good news? Meeting Farhadi’s characters could prove enlightening, a good first step toward understanding not only others – but also ourselves.