As William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The characters in “The Past” have reason to rue this truth, as an Iranian husband flies back to France to grant his wife a divorce and gets tangled in her troubled relationships.
Writer-director Asghar Farhadi earned an Oscar nomination for the script of his last film, “A Separation,” which won the Oscar for best foreign film. (It was about a different kind of marital wrangle, this time between two Iranians.)
Where that movie encouraged us to side with both participants, “The Past” asks us to empathize with a whole crew of people in the world of a French pharmacist named Marie-Anne: adults and children, husband past and husband perhaps to be, the woman Marie-Anne has knowingly wronged and the people who have knowingly wronged Marie-Anne.
The film could hardly be less American in tone: It has no villains. It provides complete and comfortable closure for none of its relationships. It doesn’t end far from the emotional place where it began, though some characters edge closer to self-awareness and charity toward others.
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It’s long and sometimes slow at 130 minutes, but not repetitive or dull. Characters often move toward a destination, stop, muse, then go forward or reverse course. In short, it depicts the lives of complicated and confused people.
The clearest thinking comes from Ahmad (Ali Mossaf). He has flown from Tehran to France to give Marie-Anne the divorce she wants, possibly so she can marry a dry cleaner named Samir (Tahar Rahim). What Samir will do about his wife, who put herself into a seemingly irreversible coma by trying to commit suicide, remains to be seen.
Ahmad respects Lucie (Pauline Burlet), Marie-Anne’s gloomy 16-year-old daughter, and little half-sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin). He befriends Fouad (Elyes Aguis), Samir’s angry and bewildered little boy, and ends up taking an interest in all of them. (Jestin and especially Aguis make terrific debuts. I’ve seldom seen more natural children onscreen.)
Marie-Anne (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist”) alternately embraces all these people and pushes them away. We see why men are drawn to her – she’s gorgeous and quick-witted – and why she goes through them every few years: She’s also suspicious and quick-tempered.
All the problems in the movie come from failures in communication. Farhadi repeatedly shows conversations that take place on the other side of a window or windshield, where we or the characters guess what’s happening. Marie-Anne first sees Ahmad at the airport but literally can’t get through to him, because they’re separated by a glass wall.
Characters constantly misread each other or miss each other’s signals, and the story that begins with a botched connection between two characters ends with a desperate plea for connection between two others. But where an American film would make up our minds for us about the outcome, Farhadi lets us make up our own minds.