If you didn’t know better, you might assume Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is based on a successful play. For this intimate drama takes place within confined spaces on the outskirts of Paris where the writer-director tries to unravel tangled emotional connections and disconnections in no less than two broken households.
The Iranian-born auteur’s new film, his sixth as a director, is, like his last offering, the Oscar-winning “A Separation,” about romantic relationships gone bad and the families and children who suffer from adult dysfunction. If there is a theme to Farhadi’s films it may be that people in general have a hard time getting a handle on themselves and others.
The film opens with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at the Paris airport from Tehran, having been summoned by his estranged French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) to finalize their divorce.
Beyond the awkwardness of getting together after four years of separation — symbolized by a glass partition they must shout and gesture through at their initial meeting — is the fact Marie has picked him up in a “friend’s” car and that contrary to his wishes she has not booked a hotel room for him. Rather she insists he stay in the suburban house they once occupied as man and wife.
Soon enough he learns the friend is indeed the man she intends to marry as soon as the divorce is final. Meanwhile her children, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), both from an even earlier relationship, are unsettled by this new man.
Samir (Tahar Rahim) is the owner of a nearby dry cleaning business, and along with his son Fouad (Elyes Agues) he now lives with Marie. The fact that the new man too is Iranian may give Ahmad pause but no one says much about this fact, at least at first.
So quite a complicated dance of emotions and uncomfortable situations ensue within the generous space of this home next to the railroad tracks. Further underscoring tensions is the nettlesome fact that Samir is technically still married albeit to woman who has been in a coma for many months.
Then Marie asks Ahmad to talk to her elder daughter, who has been “acting out” lately — staying out late and clearly resenting the presence of Samir. For the irony is that Ahmad, who is father to none of the children in the story, has the best abilities to talk to and establish bonds with young people.
With the precision of a fine playwright, Farhadi unpeels layers of resentments, betrayals and secrets within the troubled household in a Chekhovian manner. Each line of dialogue moves the drama forward; each scene provides further revelations of the characters, their fears and worries.
While ripe with the trappings of soap opera, “The Past” never descends into melodrama although it comes close on occasion. Probably the actors themselves prevent this from happening.
Bejo, best known as the charming love interest in “The Artist,” is a woman determined to put the past behind no matter what. Despite a history of failed relationships, she embraces the future with a tough-minded optimism.
Rahim, excellent in “A Prophet,” plays a quiet, even morose man saddled with the responsibility of a small boy who resents the constant changes in his life and a comatose wife whom he may still love — or at least feel responsible for.
How she got into a coma becomes the central mystery that Ahmad must solve like a good detective. Mosaffa navigates these tricky emotional issues, often playing mediator among the children, maintaining a civility toward his replacement and sorting out his own feelings about his ex and her daughter who clearly is closer to him than her own mother.
Despite a lengthy 130-minute running time and absolutely no musical score, “The Past” is engrossing from the opening moments. Yet at times things slot so neatly in place as to feel orchestrated by a writer rather than emerging organically from a hothouse of simmering emotions.
I guess were it to be truly organic the running time might stretch much longer. Truths rush from people’s mouths almost with an eye on the clock and issues feel slightly forced; things that may take days to resolve do so in hours or even minutes.
It’s a small quibble.
The pleasing thing is the writer-director never judges or takes sides. He measures his characters evenly, revealing motivations and displaying guilt or shame with sagacity. He likes and may even admire his characters for all their flaws, some pretty bad when you come down to it.
Even then, there is a quiet subtext, never overtly stated, that Marie may not be fully over her marriage. Meanwhile the reasons for Ahmad’s abandonment are never revealed.
Ahmad wants say something to his ex-wife as the movie draws to a close, perhaps something that may touch on this very issue. She shushes him: She no longer wants to look back. She then turns away from him and the camera and leaves us all behind.
Opens: December 20, 2013 New York, Los Angeles (Sony Pictures Classics
Production companies: Memento Films Production in co-production with France 3 Cinema, BIM
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahat Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet
Director:/screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Producer: Alexandre Mallet-Gu
Executive producer: Alexa Rivero
Director of photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Production designer: Claude Lenoir
Costumes: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes.