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With: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi
Written by: Asghar Farhadi, Massoumeh Lahidji
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
Language: French, Persian with English subtitles
Running Time: 130
Date: 12/20/2013

The Past (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Divorce Whisperers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There has been a lot of talk about Asghar Farhadi being a "master" filmmaker. I thought I would take a moment here and discuss why this idea troubles me. Firstly, I was lucky enough to work as a movie reviewer during what can be considered the "Iranian New Wave." This began around 1997 with the American release of Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Gabbeh, the first -- to the best of my knowledge -- Iranian film to play in American cinemas.

This "new wave" was quite extraordinary, as filmmakers worked around their country's strict censorship to reach new heights of subtlety, poetry, and depth, as well as realism and naturalism. Besides Makhmalbaf, the main figures of this movement were Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. This trio has created several masterpieces, none of which has ever been nominated for an Oscar. (One great Iranian film, Children of Heaven, was nominated in 1999. But it was a one-shot. The director of that film, Majid Majidi, never made anything else that equaled it and is not considered a "master.")

Readers should know that the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards operates under some strange rules, which I believe actually contributes to the making of mediocre movies. When critics' organizations choose the best foreign language film of the year, they follow the same rules as anything else: they choose the best from whatever films actually played in movie theaters during the course of a given year. But the Academy collects only one "official" submission from each country. These movies don't even have to open in general U.S. theaters during the year, and very often, when the actual Oscar nominations are announced, no one has heard of the foreign language films.

What this does is that it results in films that are responsible, toe the line, and represent responsibly the country from which it hails. There are no reckless artistic masterpieces or personal movies submitted. The last truly great, personal film to win the award was Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander in 1983 (although I, and no doubt many readers, have a soft spot for Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso). If you look at the list of the greatest and most acclaimed non-English language directors in the world today (Wong Kar-wai, Bela Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cristi Puiu, Jia Zhang-ke, Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Pedro Costa, etc.) you will find very few -- if any -- Oscar nominations among them.

So, for me, Asghar Farhadi represents a conundrum. Whereas his countrymen have taken great risks to produce great art, whatever Farhadi does has received the official stamp of approval from the Iranian government. Yet there's no denying he is a skilled filmmaker. My favorite film of his is Fireworks Wednesday, which received little or no distribution in this country. I admired A Separation, which won the Oscar, but to me it was not the unfettered work of greatness that it was for so many others. His new movie, The Past, while still a fine piece of work, is even less so.

I have to admit to being irked even further by the casting of Argentinian-born, French-raised beauty Bérénice Bejo in The Past. I can imagine she and Farhadi meeting backstage at the Oscars when he won for A Separation and she was nominated for The Artist -- a film I detest for many other reasons. You can't get much more Oscar-friendly than that. People not in the business probably don't know how fierce the Oscar battle is every year, and the fact that Farhadi is heavily involved in it -- concentrating on the race as much as on filmmaking -- makes me wary of him. Now, onto the review.

The Past involves a separated couple, an Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who was married to a French woman, Marie (Bejo), and lived in a French suburb. Now Ahmad returns for a short trip to sign some divorce papers and to see his daughters. He learns that Marie has not booked him into a hotel -- due to a previous flaking on his part -- and will be staying at her house. He also learns that she has a new boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir is still married, and his wife is in a coma.

Drama erupts when Marie has trouble with Samir's son. And Ahmad's eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) a wise, but emotional teen, lets Ahmad in on some harsh ideas that may or may not be true. One is the idea that Samir's wife may have tried to commit suicide when she discovered that her husband was having an affair with Marie. Another is that Marie is only dating Samir because he looks like Ahmad.

Farhadi handles all these emotions and mood shifts gracefully, emphasized by a nice use of space. Marie's house is in a state of flux; things need to be painted and repaired, and things are left undone. In one scene, one of the kids upsets a bucket of paint on the floor. Even if the movie is far too long -- another indicator of Oscar-bait -- most of the film's little details are intricate and vivid. The performances are fine, and Bejo proves that she has the stuff of a movie star.

Yet I hesitate to call it a masterpiece. Compared to everything else I've seen from Iran, The Past is really nothing more than a good soap opera that will be mistaken for a great movie, or a masterpiece. But it's clear that Farhadi has skill and talent; if only he could become a more personal filmmaker. I'd like to see him do something in some other country, or simply do a movie that he refuses to submit for Oscar consideration, something dangerous and reckless. For now, however, The Past is not too bad.

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