A whodunit whose crime is secrecy

BEIRUT: When it comes to constructing his films’ openings, writer-director Asghar Farhadi is as meticulous as a novelist. At one of France’s international airports, a woman stands on one side of a glass barrier, gazing expectantly into an arrivals area.

Her eyes fall on a man preoccupied with looking for a suitcase that hasn’t arrived. As she unsuccessfully gestures to catch his eye, a complex mix of expressions swirl over her face, suggesting nervousness, affection and need.

When she does get the preoccupied man’s attention, he walks to her and – like a husband or wife visiting an imprisoned spouse – the couple extends their hands to touch either side of the transparent wall separating them. The silent confluence of emotions, even as they stand divided, betrays something of the turbulence of their relationship and the personality at its center.

So begins “The Past” (2013), Farhadi’s eagerly anticipated sixth film, which will commence its Beirut theatrical run Thursday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

It tells the story of an estranged extended family bound by shared history – recent and otherwise. As the plot unfurls, it emerges that four years earlier Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), the man at airport arrivals, separated from his wife Marie-Ann (Bérénice Bejo), the woman on the far side of the glass, after some years of marriage.

Though they had no children themselves, during that time Ahmad was father to Lucie and Léa (Pauline Burlet, Jeanne Jestin), Marie-Ann’s children by a previous husband. Ahmad’s now returned from Iran because Marie-Ann wants him to sign their divorce papers.

Marie-Ann’s reasons for wanting the divorce now are vague, as is the reason for her desire to have her soon-to-be-ex-husband stay with her at their old house. It’s only when he meets little Fouad (Elyes Aguis) that Ahmad discerns that he’s been dropped into a highly volatile situation.

Marie-Ann is living with another man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), and she plans to marry him. This has opened a rift between her and Lucie, who for unknown reasons despises Samir. Since Lucie is as uncommunicative as her mother, Marie-Ann asks Ahmad to talk to her.

The film follows Ahmad’s efforts to get to the root of this family crisis – a family from which he’s about to be legally divorced.

Farhadi has carved out an enviable reputation for making films that appeal to audiences and critics both. Emerging from Iran’s robust theater scene, he specializes in emotionally fraught tales, driven by plot and character.

In other hands, films of this description can be turgidly overplotted and hysterically overacted. The danger signs of melodrama are evident in Farhadi’s work, but his execution is so deft it forces critics either to decide it’s not melodrama or else to re-evaluate their definition of the term.

Farhadi’s plots are elaborate, but the narrative complexity feels organic. Conflict emerges not from omniscient exterior forces – “the state,” say, “Islam” or “the West” – but the fears, frustrations and insecurities of strong-willed figures.

These characters aren’t art house clichés, emulating the taciturn protagonists of European indie cinema. They are emotional, at times driven to fits of shouting. Yet in the actors’ performances there remains a pervasive sense that there is much more that’s still unsaid.

All this was evident in 2009, when Farhadi began attracting serious international scrutiny with “About Elly,” his fourth feature, a film constructed about the social manipulations that precede and follow a young woman’s mysterious disappearance from a Caspian Sea holiday with her middle-class friends.

Farhadi’s follow-up, “A Separation” (2011), won most every significant national and international award for which it was eligible – sweeping up several prizes after its world premiere at the Berlinale (including the Golden Bear) and at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival, then winning the 2012 Golden Globe and Academy awards for best foreign film.

“The Past” has not been received with the same ardor. It was nominated for three major awards at Cannes, where it debuted, and walked away with two, but not the Palme D’Or.

There is a great deal in “The Past” that is of a piece with “A Separation.” Unlike “About Elly,” for instance, both these films take up the stories of nuclear families about to come to pieces – though the divorce in the new film is uncontested.

The thing that makes “The Past” unlike Farhadi’s previous work, of course, is that it’s set in France, is largely driven by French actors and speaks French (but for brief exchanges of Farsi between Mosaffa and Babak Karimi).

It may be the decentering “foreignness” of “The Past” that has made critics wary: The work is undeniably Farhadi’s, yet (like the late films of his countryman Abbas Kiarostami) it doesn’t look Iranian; it resembles, and in production terms is, a French film but its outsider perspective means it doesn’t move like one.

Because he’s Iranian, critics frequently try to read political subtexts into Farhadi’s work. It’s assumed, for instance, that the emigration underlying the divorce in “A Separation” is motivated by Iran’s political situation. “The Past” also seems to invite allegorical readings – indeed it’s hard to read it otherwise when the central figure in this French story is named Marie-Ann, and evidently has a thing for Muslim guys.

While not wrong, such readings contribute little to appreciating the cleverness of the films.

More than any of Farhadi’s recent work, “The Past” nods to genre, specifically the police procedural. Coppers play no role in this story, but since Marie-Ann is habitually close-lipped when it comes to the men she loves, Ahmad finds himself having to piece together the details of her life himself.

He begins by asking the quarrelsome young Fouad why he’s upset. Then he’s asked to find out what’s up with Lucie. Her disclosure first suggests that Samir is a bad person because he plans to marry Marie-Ann despite the fact that his first wife Valeria (Valeria Cavalli) is comatose in hospital.

Later the story does acquire aspects of a criminal investigation as Ahmad’s attention is drawn to the circumstances surrounding Valeria’s condition.

Notwithstanding the relative aloofness of critics and professional juries, “The Past” is vintage Farhadi. From the performances of his cast of well-known French actors – Bejo, Rahim and Sabrina Ouazani – the director pulls the same restrained intensity as his previous works.

Mosaffa’s rendering of Ahmad as a straight-shooting pillar of morality is made more nuanced by his admission of past cowardice during his marriage. The film belongs to Bejo, however, whose depiction of the manipulative Marie-Ann believably mingles strength, weakness and culpability, while leaving her a basically sympathetic character.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film lies in the writing. Having picked up the police procedural as a delivery system for a family drama, Farhadi also undermines the logic of the genre.

By film’s end, the tragedy at the center of this story is clear.

A life has been ended, yet there is no indictable crime. There is, however, a surfeit of grief.

“The Past” opens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday. The film is in French and

Farsi with English and Arabic subtitles.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 06, 2014, on page 16.




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