“The Past” is a deliciously soapy French romantic mystery, a melodrama that gives that label a good name.
It’s about divorce and the rippling waves of pain caused by it and the affair that precipitated it. And the more we learn about who did what to whom and when, the more intriguing it becomes.
Ahmad, played by Iranian actor Ali Mosoffa, flies in to Paris and is met at the airport by Anne-Marie (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist”). There’s a warmth in that meeting, but something’s a bit off. We start to figure it out on their drive home.
He’s been gone for four years. She’s ready for a divorce. That’s why he’s come back.
The brittle undercurrent turns more tense when he arrives at what used to be there home. Anne-Marie’s daughter by an earlier marriage, Lea (Jeanne Jestin) remembers him, But there’s a strange, hostlile little boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Anne-Marie, it turns out, has a new beau.
And Anne-Marie’s other daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet, a soulful, sadfaced teen) cannot stand him.
Ahmad finds himself sucked into some sort of domestic mess involving Lucie, Anne-Marie and Fouad’s father, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Yeah, mom took up with another Iranian.
Samir’s got a wife. She’s in a coma. And Ahmad cannot hide his unease at every fresh tidbit that someone adds to the mix, while Anne-Marie has troubling masking her guilt.
“What was that?”
“We call it a ‘smile.’”
“We call it mocking!”
Veteran writer-director Asghar Farhadi takes his time unraveling all this French (with English subtitles) soap opera, maintaining a faint suspense as he does. Emotions, repressed or not, are high. We worry what the combustible little Fouad will do (he’s messing with knives, having tantrums, the works), how Lucie’s teen angst will express itself.
Mosaffa is very good at taking on the role of “the adult” here, Rahim underplays a sort of quiet, guilty resentment to perfection and Bejo makes Anne-Marie seem perfectly reasonable — until that instant she isn’t.
The surprises in “The Past” don’t justify its length, but Farhadi has created a believable, lived-in world of cluttered kitchens, cramped small businesses, a Parisian community of Iranian expats and the little people with big problems who inhabit them. Like the characters in this inter-connected world, you may feel the need to let go of “The Past,” only to realize, after the credits, the hold it still has on you.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa
Credits: Directed by Asghar Farhadi, written by Asghar Farhadi and Massoumeh Lahidji. A Sony Classics release.
Running time: 2:10