The Past finds love's darker history

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Starring Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa. In French and Farsi, with English subtitles. Rated PG

In The Past, Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi follows Abbas Kiarostami—who decamped to Italy and Japan for his last two features—to find a home in cinema outside the familiar homeland. Farhadi’s last effort, the Oscar-winning A Separation, followed a modern Tehran couple toward an uncertain divorce. Here, he examines the effects of an even less carefully considered dissolution.

This twosome’s future, in this case, really is a foreign land—specifically France, in a crummy industrial Parisian suburb where Marie (Bérénice Bejo, Argentine-born star of The Artist ) awaits a visit from her soon-to-be ex-husband, presumably back in Iran for the previous four years. She wants a final decree, but the arrival of Ahmad stirs up more than it resolves. (He’s played sympathetically by Ali Mosaffa, a writer-director married in real life to Separation star Leila Hatami.)

It’s soon apparent that her children, an easygoing little girl (Jeanne Jestin) and her troubled teenage sister (cast standout Pauline Burlet, who played the very young Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose), are not his. There’s also a mysterious boy (Elyes Aguis) on the premises, hinting at why the scatterbrained, easily angered woman suddenly wants to speed up the change to their long-ignored marital status.

Fraught with claustrophobic tension from the start, the situation is made more confusing when Marie insists on putting up Ahmad in her crowded, chaotic house, rather then dropping him at a hotel, as he requested. It would be wrong to describe the twists that follow, although I’ll say they involve a romantic dry cleaner, his suicidal wife, and an Iranian-Italian couple suggesting that these cross-cultural relationships can last.

Other than some vague references, the tale is free of politics or even geography, mostly to the good. But Farhadi finally depends too much on theatrical plot reversals, melodramatic revelations, and the dynamics of apology—everyone is constantly forced to make amends for something. This makes the astutely shot, tenderly acted film’s 130 minutes feel long, humourless, and somehow stuck in love’s darker history.

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