The Past, from Asghar Farhadi, director of A Separation, is a film about people clinging to memories, to their relationships, even after they've turned sour, expired, exploded in misery and miscommunication. A thickly knotted and compelling tale, set in an unglamorous, working-class Paris, it churns with complex emotions, suspense, guilt, and regret.
And - until it devolves into a kind of moral whodunit with a soap opera scenario involving an errant e-mail - it's absolutely riveting.
At the center of The Past is Marie (Bérénice Bejo), a pharmacist who lives with her boyfriend, Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), and three children - a young boy and girl, and a sulky teen, Lucie (Pauline Burlet). Flying in from Iran is Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), Marie's husband. He has lived there for years, and he's been summoned to finalize their divorce. Marie greets Ahmad at the airport through a glass partition, and clearly they are glad to see each other. She has neglected to book a hotel, and so Ahmad comes back and stays with Marie, and with Samir, and with the children. Lucie, the eldest, though not Ahmad's daughter (nor Samir's), is close with Ahmad - she, too, is glad to see him again.
Already, things are messy.
And then there is Samir's wife - yes, Samir's wife - in a coma at the hospital, an attempted suicide. Samir must decide whether to pull the plug.
Maybe this all sounds too much, but in Farhadi's steady hands, and with four raw and deeply rooted performances, The Past pulls you in - like an undertow. Bejo, the silent-screen chorus-girl-turned-star of the Oscar hit The Artist, is revelatory as a woman torn between two men, between possibilities. You can feel her quaking with longing, a longing that manifests in a kind of passive-aggressive recklessness.
Mosaffa's Ahmad is a man full of intelligence and reticence, forced into an unfamiliar position - that of truth-seeker, trying to understand the women in his life (Marie, Lucie). The sorrowful, simmering rage exhibited by Rahim's Samir is understandable given all he is confronted with.
And young Lucie, played with fearlessness by Burlet (she was the 10-year-old street urchin Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose), is carrying a burden almost impossible to bear.
As for that electronic paper trail and all the forensic to-and-fro that happens in the film's final act - in a sense, it's an old literary device, like the lost or misdelivered letter of a Victorian novel: a twist of fate, or coincidence, that affects lives in the worst possible way.
What is amazing about The Past, even if it fails to match the resonance of A Separation, is how Farhadi's film so fully investigates these lives, full of conflict, confusion, sadness, and secrets.