Thursday, January 23, 2014

'The Past' brings a complex present to life

The director of A Separation returns with a keenly observant movie about the complexities of contemporary relationships.

I've seen few better movies about the way people respond to tangled domestic pressures than director Asghar Farhadi's The Past, a revealing look at characters trying to negotiate an impossibly complicated, but entirely plausible situation.

Most of us never receive a get-out-of-jail-free card that distances us from our tangled histories. It's not just that we tend to see the world through the gauzy filters of memory, but that, as we live, our actions build layer upon layer of consequences that ripple through our lives and the lives of others.

Keep this in mind when you meet Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), a man who makes the trip from Tehran to Paris to meet his estranged wife (Berenice Bejo) and finalize their divorce.

At the airport, Bejo's Marie tries to get the arriving Ahmad's attention by pounding a glass partition that separates travelers from those who have come to meet them. Clearly, Farhadi -- who directed the great Iranian movie A Separation -- wants to say something about the difficulty of communication.

Despite this symbolic beginning, communications problems in The Past aren't caused by physical obstacles; they're lodged in the psyches of characters who, for a variety of reasons, aren't accustomed to putting their cards on the table. Put another way, they behave like real people.

When Ahmad arrives at Marie's house -- a chaotic residence in a low-rent Parisian suburb -- he learns that Marie's teen-age daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) has been acting out, that her youngest daughter (Jeanne Jestin) still remembers him fondly and that another boy, the recalcitrant and difficult Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is now living with Marie.

As the story develops, we learn that Fouad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir, who owns a dry cleaning store, and Marie plan to marry.

Not complicated enough? Try this: Not only is Marie not officially divorced, but Samir's married, too. Samir's wife has fallen into a vegetative coma after a suicide attempt. Doctors are unable to say with certainty whether she'll ever regain consciousness.

To keep us from being as overwhelmed as his characters, Farhadi reveals all of the movie's entanglements gradually, allowing us to learn about these characters at roughly the same pace as Ahmad.

Underlying all of this (and dealt with without undue attention or didacticism) are cultural conflicts that may arise from the differing ethnic backgrounds of characters who find themselves in the middle of a melting pot that includes French-born women and Iranian emigre men.

This divide, we'll learn, may have had something to do with what made Ahmad leave France in the first place.

The acting -- from both young and old -- couldn't be better. Mosaffa earns great sympathy as a man trying to maintain his balance as he walks into Marie's life, which -- of course -- means that he's walking into an undigested chapter from his own past.

Rahim's Samir seems remote, a man whose defenses constantly are up. And Marie's daughter Lucie -- both her daughters are from a marriage that preceded Ahmad -- has gone into sullen revolt against her mother's impending marriage.

As much as I've told you about the plot, I've also told you very little about the movie. Every character in The Past has a complex and justifiable viewpoint about what's happening. They're all right, and they're all wrong, and perhaps that's the point. No one lives free of contradiction and ambiguity.

For those who know Bejo only from her turn as a silent movie star in The Artist, she may offer the movie's biggest surprise. In The Past, she plays a working mother who can't always control her temper. Marie can be obstinate, even though she doesn't always know her own mind. The state of Marie's disordered home -- stray paint cans for an on-going refurbishing project and a yard that badly needs attention -- suggests that she's heaping too much on an already full plate.

There may be times when you may become aware of the structure that Farhardi imposes on this domestic mess, and he can't entirely avoid stumbling over a few melodramatic trip wires. But the authenticity of these characters -- the children are amazing -- keeps the movie feeling credible.

Critics frequently (and sometimes with good reason) complain about not being able to care about the characters in movies. It's a rare movie, however, in which we develop concern about all the characters and try to understand them.

That's why, for me, Farhadi is as important as any other contemporary filmmaker. He's interested in the kinds of people who might actually see his movies, and he's not judgmental about the fact that most of us can't get through life without having to live through at least a couple of major messes.

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