The Past and the Present

Film review: Le Passé (Director: Asghar Farhadi)

By Sascha Krieger

Two people at an airport: she is trying to get his attention, succeeds after several attempts, he comes over, they smile, start talking. But they cannot hear each other, remain silent, there is a massive pane between them. More than two hours later, the film will end with another scene of non-verbal communication, very differently. In-between, there is silence, people sitting at tables, riding in cars, not talking, trying not to look each other. This silence is the main character in Le Passé, the new film by Asghar Farhadi, director of the chilling divorce drama Nader and Simin. A Separation, winner of the 2011 Golden Berlin Bear and the 2012 Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. The unsaid is all-pervasive, sabotaging the efforts of all these well-meaning, committed, loving people whose lives cross in a Paris suburb, allowing an unfinished past to poison the present.

There is a divorce again: Marie (Bérénice Béjo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) meet again, four years after he left her and her two children to return to his native Teheran, in order to seal the divorce. Marie wants to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim) who has already moved in with his son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), while Marie’s older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) wages war on her mother’s new lover and the younger Léa (Jeanne Jestin) I all but forgotten. Everyone has their own secrets to conceal, secrets which have blackened the present and allow nobody to move on. As in Nader and Simin, Farhadi spins a complex tale of discovery, as in a detective story he makes Ahmad the primary agent to discover all that’s been buried, all that’s left unsaid.

Whereas in the earlier film, the private drama clashes with the stifling reality of today’s Iran, Le Passé has no such counterpart. So the focus remains on the private: Farhadi calmly observes looks, gestures, expressions, the turning away of faces, the stiffening of bodies. There is a lot of talking, speaking that is supposed to ease the weight all seem to be suffering under, and yet communication is mostly between the words. As Marie looks at a leaving Ahmad, as Lucie desperately seeks her mother’s warmth lying in a bed with her, as Samir’s searching glances fill the room, the past is all over the place because nobody has set it aside.

Farhadi’s story-telling is completely unassuming, he keeps his distance, the camera remains steady and almost detached. He sets a slow pace, allows the story to develop, tells chronologically and linear but the story cannot adhere to this. Almost below being noticed, the story moves from Ahmad and Marie to Fouad to Lucie to Samir. All have their stories to tell, and yet in a way it is all the same one, it is their mutual story which they only discover near the end. With all its calmness, in which even the largest outbursts, though relentless and shocking when they happen, leave little trace, have neither a cathartic nor a culminating effect, Le Passé develops a pull which becomes a surge that sweeps the viewer off their feed and into this swamp which is nothing more nor less that rather botched attempt many of us make of life. The film has an atmospheric intensity and density that at times make it hard to watch, the silent, yet kind and loving faces are haunting, the claustrophobic narrowness of the overcrowded house more than a symbol, rather a perfect setting for all the skeletons hidden in the cupboard.

In the end Asghar Farhadi has discovered most secrets but the truth remains as slippery as ever, every time one seems to get near its bottom it is revealed as an illusion. He leaves his characters to find out for themselves at which point the search for the truth can be allowed to end and the healing to start. Even when all is known, there are no simple answers, trust is needed, risks must be taken, love allowed to make decisions. The film ends on a note as sad and moving as it is full of hope. All is open, such is life and such is Le Passé. What’s past is gone and yet it lingers. Letting go might be the greatest art. Asghar Farhadi doesn’t show us how to do it but he does ask us to try.

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