I recently caught a screening of ‘The Past’ (Asghar Farhadi) and genuinely enjoyed it. The film throws us into the deep end of the tense and turbulent lives of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo). The film weaves storylines and viewpoints into an intricate web all closing in on one question – why did Marie’s new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) wife attempt suicide? With such heavy context the film is perhaps not for the overly sensitive, but certainly keeps the viewers attentions at all times. Almost all characters are given expansive and complicated personalities – which I will touch on later. A response I overheard when leaving the cinema was simply “Now THAT was a soap opera”. A soap opera indeed, with cruel intentions, adultery, separation, questionable parenting and more secrets than you could shake a stick at – it all mixes together to become a magnificent drama.
The most powerful performance in my opinion goes to Pauline Burlet, who portrays Marie’s eldest daughter Lucie. She manages to capture the essence of a young woman tormented by past actions without ever coming across as a trope. When her terrible actions finally come to light, Marie’s (Bejo’s) reaction is by far the most realistic, yet shown to us in a light where it is instead over dramatic and monstrous. These two female characters in particular, along with the smaller (but overall important) role of Naima (Sabrina Ouazani), are women driven not entirely by pure motives. Writing characters, especially women, with such overbearing emotional flaws can be seen as a risky move but I regard it as a wonderful thing to see in modern cinema. Too often we’re fed only the innocent maiden or the evil temptress, it’s important to show audiences the moral greys regardless of gender. Burlet, Bejo and Ouazani have taken these characters and made them absolute assets to the story – something that may not have happened should less capable actors have been given these characters.
Another impressive character, and moreover impressive development of character goes to Rahim’s Samir. At first the audience is content to see him as a terrible and flakey man who leaves his comatose wife and son for the less comatose Marie. However this turns around so subtly the audience will not be aware until it becomes abundantly clear – while his actions towards his wife and son are never in any way excused (the film in fact encourages the disdain towards this) he is not shown as evil, and he is not evil. Adulterous, yes, selfish, definitely, but certainly not evil, and his gentle nature and the foundation of his previous love is slowly awakened again as he comes to regret what he has done. This brings me back to what I was saying about ‘almost all characters are given expansive and complicated personalities’ the standout exception to this statement is none other than the protagonist Ahmad (Mosaffa).
Ahmad is presented a man of few words, but nothing negative about him is ever touched upon nor explored in depth. It was mentioned he left his wife to return to his homeland Iran, but never explained why – leaving the audience to think due to the context of the film that the wife must be at fault – which very well may not be the case. He is also shown to be a kind and supportive father, but generally only when it makes Marie look like a completely awful mother. He is shown to be friendly and conversational with local business owners (who are supposed friends of his), which assist with the audiences’ dislike of Samir. He is shown to be wise and fatherly, but only to make Lucie appear to be naïve and lost. If you need to throw other characters under the bus to present to us a ‘good’ protagonist then the protagonist is immediately the opposite. You don’t need to sacrifice the integrity of one person to improve another.
It’s not enough to give us a strong male hero, you must tell us why he is.
This is the only major issue I have taken from this film however. ‘The Past’ is a rich and passionate film that puts most (Ahmad I’m looking at you) characters under the microscope and refuses to let the audience settle on any one emotion for too long. Well worth the time of any international theatre fan and the casual movie goer – do not let the subtitles scare you away from this or any other film.
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