Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is a beautifully written, crafted and acted movie screened as part of the ongoing Cannes Film Festival Competition. The Past, much like Farhadi’s 2011 A Separation, which won the Foreign Language Oscar, is about family and children. Both paint wonderful portraits of how relationships among screwed- up adults affect children – and deeply.
Although The Past is not as intense or griping as A Separation, Farhadi’s Cannes player is nonetheless a disturbing picture of how modern families grow dysfunctional. What is also missing in The Past are the rather convoluted Iranian judicial, political and religious systems, for the movie is set in Paris, unlike A Separation whose story unfolded in Tehran.
The Past opens in a masterful manner when we see The Artist actress, Berenice Bejo, portraying Marie, at the airport trying to catch the eye of a man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), across a glass partition. He turns out to be her husband, who is returning to Paris after a four-year-separation to sign the divorce papers.
Marie wants Ahmad to stay at her place, not in a hotel, hoping that he would talk her teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), out of her tantrums and sulky mood. Estranged from her father in Brussels who was once married to Marie, Lucie is fond of Ahmad and does not want her mother to marry her third lover, Samir, (Tahar Rahim). The family is not just this: there are two other children, one Marie’s little daughter and Lucie’s sister, and Samir’s little boy.
Marie is all set to marry Samir, but there is something that seems to be holding her back. Perhaps, she is not sure that she wants to close her ties with Ahmad. Another part of her uncertainty about letting Ahmad finally go and getting into a more permanent relationship with Samir is the fact that his wife is in a coma following her attempted suicide.
The Past has marvellous detailing. Look at the way Lucie passes Samir the teapot across the dinner table (he can’t take it without burning himself); the way Ahmad helps Marie (who has a sprained wrist) change gear on the way back from the airport; and so on.
Also, shifting the movie into top gear are performances which are uniformly captivating. For Bejo and Rahim, Cannes has proved to be a super launch pad.
As one report says: Bejo shimmered on-screen in Cannes two years ago in The Artist, her director husband Michel Hazanavicius' vivacious silent homage to Hollywood's Golden Age. It went on to win five Academy Awards, including best picture. Rahim was the breakout star of the 2009 festival in Jacques Audiard's poetic and brutal prison drama A Prophet, as a youth growing to manhood behind bars”.
"It was quite a miracle for me," Bejo said in an interview. "Two years ago my life changed a little bit in Cannes…I don't think Asghar Farhadi would have cast me in this film if I hadn't done The Artist.
After her screen test, Bejo did not hear from Farhadi for a month. She thought that it was all over. "He said to me, I was looking into your face if I could see the doubt," she said. "I guess because he saw me in movies where I was quite positive, quite sunny, quite glamorous. He needed to see if I could show another part of myself - and I guess he found it." Both Bejo and Rahim thought that it was a dream come true to have worked with Farhadi. The Past is his first film to have been shot outside his home country.
What is also fascinating about The Past is that it is one of the several movies at Cannes this year which have hopped borders. The Past has an Iranian director and a largely French cast. French director Arnaud Desplechin's made-in-America "Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian" stars France's Mathieu Amalric and Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro. Another French filmmaker, Guillaume Canet, has a multinational cast including Clive Owen, Billy Crudup and Marion Cotillard in his New York crime drama Blood Ties.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for Hindustan Times)