Iranian director Asghar Farhadi put himself on the map with A Separation, a closely-observed family drama that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 and went on to collect the Oscar for best foreign language picture in the same year.
Family breakdown and renewal is the theme again in Farhadi’s new film, The Past, which screens in competition at Cannes this year. Ali Mosafa plays Ahmad, returning to Paris from Tehran to finalise the divorce from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, star of The Artist) so that she can marry her new boyfriend, Samir, played by Tahar Ramid.
Ahmad is surprised when Marie collects him from the airport and, rather than taking him to a hotel, insists that he and his son stay with her in the ramshackle house in the Parisian suburbs she shares with Samir and her children from a previous relationship. The scene is set for the untangling of a complex web of human relationships, across generations and cultures, the past and the present.
Early reviews praised the film for its even-handed, morally neutral tone and suspenseful storytelling.
Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young says The Past “gradually unpeels motivation without taking sides; in fact, neither Bejo’s unbridled mother and lover, Mosaffa’s distanced outsider who has abandoned the family, nor Rahim’s morose adulterer act outside normal social mores.”
“The Past plays like a low-key adagio in the hands of a masterful pianist, who knows how to give every note its just nuance and how every single phrase affects all the rest,” she writes.
The film’s careful plotting drew praise from Variety’s senior film critic, Justin Chang. “Even when the script’s underlying machinery reveals itself, the actors remain unimpeachably authentic, the crucial test of which is the fact that every character will probably annoy you at some point.”
But Indiewire’s Kevin Jagernauth found the film’s conclusion unsatisfying. “Unfortunately, it's in those later stages where The Past ever so slightly fumbles from being great, to very, very good. In the third act of the film, Farhadi makes a crucial decision to try to tie up every thread, and bring some resounding conclusions to the film, and it results in perhaps giving too many answers where some open questions might have been more dramatically potent.”
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw shares this concern . “I wonder if Farhadi hasn't overloaded his film with an almost exotic abundance of detail and plot surprises, taking it to the limit of plausibility.”
“But what a grippingly made picture it is, with real intellectual sinew,” he writes.