Last year, writer/director Asghar Farhadi captured the world’s attention with A Separation, winning Iran’s first-ever Oscar, for best foreign language film. If A Separation was best described as a domestic drama, his latest, The Past, shares the category—and further reinforces Farhadi’s uncanny ability to build deep investment in his audience by calmly stacking small, private, even trivial elements into an unexpectedly curious whole. It’s an exercise that’s less about whatever grandiose truths may finally emerge than in finding wonder in the unique oddities of relationships.
If anything, The Past inches closer to traditional dramatic subjects than its predecessor. It begins as a love triangle of sorts: Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has summoned her estranged husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), from Tehran to her home in Paris to finalize their divorce. Although it’s questionable whether Marie ever informed him of her direct motive (the suspect nature of e-mail delivery is a touchstone throughout the film), she’s become serious with Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved into the ramshackle house on the city’s outskirts that’s shared by Marie and her two daughters, young Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and sulky teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Samir also has a boy around Léa’s age, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who simmers with unhappiness.
We enter the gradually unfolding complexities of Marie’s household along with Ahmad, continually pressed into awkward positions while simultaneously called upon to be the voice of reason. When it’s revealed that Samir has a wife, too—albeit one who’s in a coma—the film develops a layer of whodunit mystery while remaining in the province of emotions and personal matters rather than crimes of public interest.
The deftness with which Farhadi draws the viewer in is rare and delicate work. That, coupled with an almost nonchalant multiculturalism, makes him among the most sophisticated filmmakers working today.