The Past isn’t just the title of Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, a worthy follow-up to A Separation, but a character in and of itself. Like in DuMaurier’s Rebecca, the past is ever present, encircling the movie’s characters like wisps of dense fog or tendrils of beautiful yet potentially lethal ivies. An Iranian, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to France at the request of his estranged wife Marie-Ann (Berenice Bejo); she is anxious for him to expedite their divorce so that she can marry Samir (Tahar Rahim), whose baby she is expecting. Ahmad is somewhat shocked that his wife would have moved on, and that she is living with her daughters from yet another marriage with Samir and his young son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), even as his own wife languishes comatose in a hospital bed. Marie-Ann’s home life in suburban Paris is chaotic and messy, with wet paint and tarped-over furnishings. Ahmad witnesses his wife’s excessive rage against Fouad when the boy knocks over a paint can, and later endures Samir’s tough-love routine with the same child. Nevertheless, left alone with the children, Ahmad instills a noticeable sense of order to the household, which elevates already palpable tensions between Marie-Ann and Samir.
In addition to the matter of settling the divorce, Marie-Ann wishes Ahmad to speak to her teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who has hit a rough patch on the road to adulthood, lashing out at her mother and not wanting to have anything to do with her next step-pop. Clearly, the Iranian has a way of connecting to the troubled girl, even as he has a difficult time finally getting her to divulge what her anger is all about. As with the adults in the story, Lucie is hounded by events of the past, particularly her possible role in the events leading to Samir’s wife’s attempted suicide. Ahmad is torn in many directions, asked to depart Marie-Ann’s life graciously but also to stick around to set things in order. At one point, another Iranian émigré reminds Ahmad that he wasn’t made for this particular society/culture, and one gets the feeling that he’s just as easily speaking about the trail of destruction left in Marie-Ann’s wake.
Farhadi is a master at depicting the little nuances of relationships, those things that say so much more than mere words. When Marie-Ann and Ahmad are reunited at the airport, there is awkwardness in their spatial relationship. In the car, she asks him to shift gears (she has an injured wrist), and it’s apparent that the near proximity of his left hand to her right arm is rife with tension; it’s as if each is secretly willing that never their flesh shall meet. In stark contrast, when Marie-Ann and Samir leave a lighting shop, she easily places her hand in his coat pocket to pluck out the car keys. Then again, the words the characters speak gradually reveal, like hidden symbols, relationship fissures and past tumult that continue to shape the present. By movie’s end, we’re somewhat unsure what’s next for the main characters, only that they are forever impacted by what has gone on before.