Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Review: The Past

The Past
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi.
Written by: Asghar Farhadi.
Starring: Bérénice Bejo (Marie Brisson), Tahar Rahim (Samir), Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad), Pauline Burlet (Lucie), Elyes Aguis (Fouad), Jeanne Jestin (Léa), Sabrina Ouazani (Naïma), Babak Karimi (Shahryar), Valeria Cavalli (Valeria).

I remember in the wake of  the success Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), which won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, there was talk of an American remake – which struck me as a particularly bad idea. A Separation was so rooted in Iranian culture and tradition, that while you could transplant to America if you wish, you would likely lose most of what was special about it in the first place. Farhadi’s new film, The Past, isn’t an American one, and isn’t a remake of A Separation, but I think it still proves my point. The Past is set in France, and while there are Iranian characters in it, it is still very much a French film. In many ways, it seems like Farhadi is trying to repeat the success of A Separation in a different location – once again there is a separating couple at its core, a dysfunctional family, and horrific secrets, and once again, we don’t get all the pieces to put together the puzzle until the end of the movie. Yet while A Separation was a devastating movie, The Past left me oddly cold – the whole movie feels manufactured and phony – like a Hollywood remake of your favorite foreign film.

 The film stars Berenice Bejo (best known for her work in The Artist) as Marie. She has already been married twice and has two daughters by her first marriage. The movie opens with her second husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) coming back to Paris from Iran after four years away in order to finalize their divorce. This is very important to Marie, because she has fallen in love with Samir (Tahar Rahim), and wants to marry him – which could be a problem since he is already married, although his wife is in a coma due to a suicide attempt. Nevertheless, she is living with Samir, his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), and her two daughters – moody teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and innocent little Lea (Jeanne Jestin).

A Separation hinged upon a miscarriage – that may or may not have been caused when the father in the movie threw their maid and care worker for his elderly father out of the house for allegedly stealing. What followed was a tense movie, as the couple at the core were already planning on separating, since she wants to leave Iran, and he refused. The film brought up interesting religious, moral and cultural issues. Such issues are not really touched upon at all in The Past – true, both of the men in Marie’s life that we see are Muslim – but other than a brief moment when Ahmad’s old friend tells him “I told you before, you have to be either here or there – you have to choose” – the fact that they are Muslim, and immigrants, is pretty much beside the point. It doesn’t help that both men are pretty thinly designed characters anyway – Ahmad isn’t so much a person in this movie, as a saint, coming back from an extended period of time, and trying to help this troubled family through some difficult times (that none of the kids are his, pretty much leaves him off the hook for everything – and you have to wonder why the hell he’s putting himself through this). Mosaffa’s performance helps bring out a few layers that don’t appear to have been there in a screenplay, but he can only do so much. Rahim’s Samir is a passive character for much of the time – we cannot tell until close to the end of the movie if he cares at all about his wife in a coma, or if she’s now just an inconvenience to her. Bejo – who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year (although, the fact that the Spielberg led jury took the unprecedented step of insisting the two actresses from Blue is the Warmest Color share the Palme D’or that film won, I think it’s safe to assume even they didn’t think hers was the best performance in the competition) fares much better than either of her male co-stars – because she’s given more to do. Having said that, even her character is fairly one note for much of the movie – unless she’s flying into teenage girl like rages. It’s a tricky role, and for the most part Bejo handles it well – or at least as well as it could have been handled.

The bigger problem with the screenplay though is the plotting. Everything in the movie hinges of the suicide attempt and coma of Samir’s wife – and Farhadi drops in revelations about what really happened like bombs through the narrative – just as everything seems to be settling down from one explosion, another one hits, and the movie is sent reeling again. It’s effective the first few times, but Farhadi uses the device far too often throughout the film.

I realize this review is probably sounds like I hated The Past – I didn’t really, although I don’t think it’s a very good movie either. The performances are as good as they can be – I was impressed with Bejo, who shows a completely different side of herself than the one she showed in The Artist (although I do think that Marion Cotillard, who was originally cast, but had to drop out would have brought even more to the role). Mosaffa brings a nice layer or regret and grief to his role as Ahmad – I still do not believe he would subject himself to what he does in the movie, but the performance itself cannot be faulted.

 But perhaps The Past is a victim of its predecessor’s success. A Separation was such a highly acclaimed movie – and was deserving of the praise it received – that expectations were high for this one. Since Farhadi decided to work in the same vein as last time out, comparisons are inevitable – and to me, the comparison between A Separation and The Past does the later no favors.

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