The Past is a relationship drama set on the outskirts of Paris. It begins with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) flying in from Tehran to meet with his estranged wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, the spirited female lead in The Artist) to finalize their divorce. They have a common task, but are otherwise out of sync, as writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) makes clear by showing the characters attempting to communicate with each other through a glass partition at the airport. After presenting the basic situation, Farhadi reveals his story points slowly, like layers being peeled from an onion.
NOTE: While the onion simile is useful, I should point out that with most onions, until you reach the heart, peeling away a layer of onion only gets you more onion. The onion to which I refer in the previous paragraph is a very special onion where each layer includes new information along with its distinct flavor. But I digress.
In deference to Farhadi, I'll only tell you about the first couple layers of the onion. Ahmad and Marie have been separated for four years. She was supposed to book him a room at a hotel, but didn't. At the suburban home where he used to live with her, we meet Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin), Marie's children from an earlier relationship. Teenage Lucie is upset about something. A little boy is also present. Young Fouad (Elyes Agues) is a feisty kid who gets stirred up easily. As the next layer of the onion is unpeeled, we learn that Marie is in a relationship with Fouad's father, Samir (Tahar Rahim), a local dry cleaner.
You'll learn much more when you see the movie, but don't expect a lot of cable-TV-drama-style shocking revelations. Farhadi isn't into melodrama, though he certainly doesn't mind skirting the edge of soap opera. The cast is very adept at playing regular folks, but man oh man, are they good looking (Tahar Rahim's hair is so perfect that I wouldn't be surprised to see him drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's in London).
To be fair, I should warn you that the film has lots of talking and not a great deal of action. It worked for me, but some may find the pacing glacial.
I enjoyed Farhadi's look at relationships and the difficulty in moving forward while dragging the past behind you. Watching the fractured family members is interesting. Several characters feel guilty over bad things that happen, assuming they are responsible. Witnessing little Fouad exhibit such behavior is unsurprising; being self-absorbed is part of being a child. Seeing the same behavior from grown-ups begs the question: do we ever stop thinking we are the center of the universe?
Farhadi's breaks from the standard approach to stories, which focus on a central character or two while relegating everyone else to supporting player status. The Past takes a more fluid approach, flowing from one character to another. I found it most telling that neither of the characters from the beginning of the film are present in the closing scene. The message of the movie? My guess is this: Life unfolds. Flavored by the past, but in the now. Life unfolds. Each person is a vital part of it, but the star of the show is the show, not me or you.