Asghar Farhadi directed A Separation, one of the best films of the decade so far. His new film is called The Past. Ron Swanson thinks it is the work one of the the greatest filmmakers working today. You need to read what he says, and then see the film.
Given the awards and critical acclaim bestowed on Asghar Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation* I’d expected there to be far more excitement and buzz surrounding the release of his follow-up, The Past, which is released in cinemas today and will be available on-demand imminently.
But nothing has ever come particularly easy for Farhadi or his films. Even A Separation was largely out of cinemas by the time it started winning awards and receiving high places in influential end of year polls – but that’s nothing compared to the fate of About Elly, or even further to the extreme, Fireworks Wednesday. Both films debuted at the London Film Festival before sitting on the shelves. About Elly got a cinema release in the aftermath of A Separation’s success, some three years after it was made. Fireworks Wednesday, which premiered in 2006, was finally made available once more to UK audiences late last year on DVD.
Given those precedents, we should be glad that The Past is getting a cinema release at all and not lamenting the fact that it happened to premiere at the best Cannes Film Festival in recent memory. Last year the column inches and social-media buzz went to the (admittedly deserving) likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Stranger by the Lake and The Great Beauty. Nobody even remembers that Berenice Bejo won the Best Actress award because it was overshadowed by the unprecedented step of sharing the Palme D’Or between Blue… director Abdellatif Kechiche and his two lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopolous, and then the controversy surrounding the relationship between the three.
I’d only seen Bejo in The Artist before and she’s an absolute revelation. She plays Marie, a French woman, who has to ask her estranged Iranian husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) to return to France in order to finalise their divorce thus enabling her to marry her new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad, who was like a father to Marie’s two children, comes back to do his duty but then she asks him to find out why her eldest daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is so unhappy about her relationship with Samir.
Farhadi specialises in the tiny fissures in relationships becoming too large to cope with, and his handling of such an emotionally wrought situation is exemplary. There’s not a moment when the weight of one of the characters’ unhappiness at the way things have turned out isn’t palpable – yet it avoids cliché in a way that seems scarcely credible, in retrospect. It takes an incredible amount of skill in writing, developing and casting characters to be able to manoeuvre an audience into a position where every scene of dialogue seems to build the tension to almost unbearable proportions.
His cast are flawless. Bejo undeniably gives one of the year’s best performances, she’s matched every step of the way by Mosaffa, and it’s impossible not to be wowed by Burlet. If it seems that Rahim’s performance suffers, slightly, in comparison, it’s probably because the audience cannot help but wish that Marie and Ahmad could have sorted their issues out, and created a life together once again. In fact, with a precarious role, Rahim shows the depth and vulnerability that stunned audiences in A Prophet. Here, shorn of some of that role’s physicality, it takes a while to appreciate the skill in his performance.
Of course, Farhadi got tremendous performances from Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami in A Separation, and both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday are similarly well acted. When working with domestic dramas, the ability to coax genuinely great work from your cast is as important as any other element of the director’s job. It is, though, Farhadi’s balance and control of tone and pace that sets him apart.
Farhadi finds a middle ground in every argument in which to position the viewers. Every short word comes laden with emotion and portent, even when the reason isn’t clear. As all the intricacies to the relationships within the (extended) family unfurl for the audience, and we begin to feel a level of understanding of each character’s perspectives, we also get a handle on how deeply some of the unhappiness is entrenched. More than any other film in recent memory this is a story about, exclusively, unhappy people doing things that are making them even more miserable. The Past, laden with occasional twists and turns, layers each character’s past, revealing their complicity in more than just their own misery
While the film will be available shortly on demand, like Farhadi’s previous work, this is a cinematic experience. Even working in intimate surroundings, there’s a singular elegance to the look and an understated naturalism to the feel of the film. At the airport Ahmad and Marie first reunite with a pane of soundproof glass between them. As they talk to each other without realising that they can’t be heard, it’s a metaphor for the communications problems to come (and inherent in their past) and also those which beset the protagonists in Farhadi’s earlier films. In fact the whole of the opening, from the airport to Marie’s car, is beautifully composed and realised. The rain beating down on the windshield becomes a percussive soundtrack to their awkwardness around each other.
When Ahmad and Marie return from the airport the house is, like all of the characters, in transition. It remains a conduit to the characters’ pasts, while waiting passively for them to redecorate it, and make it as new. As the film progresses the house seems to become noisier, wailing and creaking as the tension within it builds. Touches like this aren’t what make Farhadi the modern master that he is – but they do demonstrate the cinematic scope of his work. Farhadi is a filmmaker who deserves to be seen on a big screen, as part of an audience of like-minded people.
The Past is the best film of the year so far, a quiet, resonant and tense drama. It deserves the acclaim and awards that elevated Farhadi’s previous film into the collective consciousness, but I fear it’s unlikely to receive it. A Separation was this decade’s first true masterpiece for me; a spiky, sad, soulful shout of a film. It was evidence of a prodigious and unencumbered talent, and The Past simply adds an exclamation mark to what was already turning into a pretty remarkable career. It confirms him as a great filmmaker, indeed, his last four films are at least the equal of any other modern director.
* It was voted the best film of 2011 by this site’s talkboard and won the Oscar™ for Best Film in a Foreign Language.
About Elly, Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation are all available to buy on either DVD or Blu Ray.