After four years of separation, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) travels from Tehran to Paris to finalize his divorce from his wife Marie ( The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) so she can marry her new boyfriend Samir ( A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim). Ahmad and Marie haven’t spoken much — he wasn’t even aware she was living with another man — and the moment he steps inside their former home, he feels displaced. He’s no longer the head of the household, but he’s still compelled to fix the kitchen sink or help with the new paint job. There are three children living in the house, including the teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who does her best to spend as little time as possible at home for reasons that are initially undisclosed.
As he did in his previous film, the Oscar-winning A Separation, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi takes a simple domestic situation and weaves a complex, absorbing drama that incorporates the point of view of every character (including Samir’s inexplicably angry young son, Fouad, played by Elyes Aguis). Unlike A Separation, in which Iranian culture and mores played critical roles, the theme in The Past is more universal and spelled out in the title. No one in the movie can fully escape their past, even though they’re all trying to. Marie wants to be done with Ahmad (their relationship is civil but tense). Lucie is harboring a secret that is pushing her away from her family. Samir, a laundromat owner, walks around under a sullen cloud of unresolved guilt. And even Fouad’s temper tantrums and strange behavior are rooted in things his parents would prefer not to talk about.
Farhadi reveals information and backstory slowly, giving each character enough screen time to allow us to understand their points of view. Although the family’s dysfunction initially appears to be the ordinary by-product of divorce, there’s a lot more to their discord. The performances are outstanding, particularly Bejo, who is not nearly as secure and in control as she seems, and Rahim, whose moodiness signals a great, profound sadness. Farhadi once again uses space to symbolize the emotional distance between the characters, who often speak to each other from different rooms, closed doors or through plates of glass.
The Past is shaped like a mystery, with Ahmad playing the role of gentle investigator, building to a revelation that only heightens the stress. But the movie is compassionate and humane — there are no cheap villains here — and it ends with a closing shot of heartbreaking beauty, a dire symbol of hope and love. And although the adults do most of the talking, the accusatory glance of children who feel they’ve been wronged fascinates Farhadi the most. The Past is about people who wish they could erase what came before and just live in the now, but life doesn’t let anyone off the hook that easily.