'The Past' Shows Divorce is Never Easy

Mar 28, 2014

For Ahmad and Marie, the couple at the turbulent heart of writer-director Asghar Farhadi's The Past, breaking up was just the beginning.  

The film plays at the Riviera Theatre in Three Rivers through Sunday.

Four years ago, Iranian native Ahmad left the home in France he shared with Marie and her two daughters from previous relationships. As The Past begins, he's returned at Marie's request: She wants to finalize their divorce so that she can marry her new boyfriend, Samhir.

Although it all sounds simple enough,The Past is a firm reminder that, if human hearts are concerned, nothing is ever easy.

Farhadi's previous film, A Separation, won the Academy Award in 2012 as best foreign language film. This absorbing and occasionally unsettling follow-up does not disappoint. A Separation gave us an insightful look at domestic life in Iran; The Past may not have as that same feeling of discovering the unexpected, but it has plenty of surprises and no shortage of emotional fireworks.

Another element it has is beautifully utilized silence. From the very start, Farhadi lets us see that Ahmad and Marie know each other so well that they can communicate without words. He demonstrates this in their first scene together, as Ahmad and Marie find themselves on opposite sides of a glass wall at an airport, greeting each other and re-establishing their rapport non-verbally.

Their reunion is cordial at first, but the tone will change as Ahmad tries to figure out exactly what Marie is up to.

Marie is played by Berenice Bejo, who's best known as the ambitious ingenue in The Artist. Bejo fearlessly plunges into a character who is often unsympathetic and sometimes bewilderingly cryptic. While Ahmad, played by Al Mosaffa, tends to be straightforward and easy to read, Marie's mercurial mood swings and mysterious motives are much harder to decipher and anticipate.

It's not hard to understand why this marriage didn't work out: Opposites may attract, but the personalities of Marie and Ahmad are so dissimilar you wonder how they ever connected in the first place.

Surrounding the tensions between Ahmad and Marie is a mystery involving the attempted suicide of Samhir's wife, a romantic misunderstanding and Marie's volatile, easily wounded teenage daughter, who is harboring a soul-crushing secret.

Farhadi fills in many of the details, then intentionally leaves a few loose ends, reminding us that often in life we never know the whole truth about anything.

The Past recalls some of the outstanding films of the early 1980s about the aftermath of divorce, such as Diane Keaton and Albert Finney's Shoot the Moon and Australian director Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace. There are no good guys or bad guys here and no clear-cut winners or losers. Just a family grappling with the choices they've made and the place they are in now as they contemplate what the future holds in store.