Marie Brisson (Bérénice Bejo) meets her husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport. An Iranian, he has returned from Tehran after four years away to finalise their divorce. As he stays at her house – a hotel booking hasn't happened due to a mix-up over emails – he meets the new man in Marie's life, Samir. But why are his soon-to-be-former stepchildren, teenaged Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and younger Léa (Jeanne Jestin), both from Marie's first marriage, keener to talk to him than to their own mother? Why is Fouad (Elyes Aguis), Samir's five-year-old son and frequent playmate of Léa, so unsettled? There are secrets in this family due to come to light.
The Past (Le passé) is Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to A Separation, Oscar-winner for Best Foreign-Language Film. While it is his first film not shot in his native country nor in his first language – it's set in Paris and the majority of the dialogue is in French, meaning that Farhadi required an interpreter on set – it shows his continuing commitment to making films where the drama comes from a complex web of human interactions, especially those of a family. That is what drives the story here, rather than melodrama or generic tropes. It's beautifully acted and beautifully made too, in a way that doesn't draw undue attention to itself.
The Past is well named, as what has gone before weighs heavily on the characters we see. There are no flashbacks: all we know about these people comes up in dialogue, so attention needs to be paid. Some parts of the puzzle are left for us to fill in: we don't see Marie's first husband. However, as she reveals early on, she is pregnant by the man who could well become husband number three, Samir. However, he has troubles of his own, namely his wife Céline, Fouad's mother, who is in a coma following a suicide attempt. We don't see Céline until the final scene. And why does Lucie hold Marie responsible for her suicide? (It's always referred to as such, though Céline is still alive in a vegetative state.) There are reasons behind all of these, and for just over two hours Farhadi and his cast let us unpick them. Communication, or a failure to communicate, lies at the heart of this story. Plot points depend on emails going unanswered, astray or being read by someone other than the intended recipient. From time to time, Farhadi emphasises this by shooting a brief conversation behind glass – a plate-glass window, a car windscreen – which cuts out the sound, so we can see the people talking but not (unless you are able to lipread French) hear what they say. Also importantly, Farhadi takes pains to depict a convincing setting for this story, a suburb of Paris, with a significant Arabian population (not all of them legal immigrants) living amidst the white community.
Bérénice Bejo won the Best Actress prize at the 2013 Cannes Festival for a fine,multilayered performance, but all three principals are excellent. Minor characters are well-cast and Farhadi deserves particular plaudits for his handling of the three children in the story. Claude Lenoir's production design and Mahmoud Khalari's camerawork, all autumnal shades, are further plus points.
The Past is a type of film that isn't entirely in fashion, even in arthouse cinemas: an intricate human drama for adults, rooted in a strong sense of place and dealing with characters with more than a few shades of grey. It's one of the films of the year for me.
Artificial Eye have released The Past on Blu-ray and DVD. It was the former which was provided for review, and the comments below and the affiliate links above refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the DVD edition, go here. The disc begins with the usual commercial for Curzon Home Cinema.
The Past was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa: you can see some Arriraw captures in progress in the making-of documentary. The Alexa captures at 2.8K resolution. Unless you saw a 35mm print in a cinema (I saw a digital presentation) this film, as is increasingly the norm nowadays, is not actually a “film” at any stage. Given that it has followed a digital path from shooting to editing to final version, you'd expect a 1080p Blu-ray version to look pristine, and indeed it does, particularly capturing the autumnal browns I remember from my cinema viewing. In fact, it's to the best of by memory identical to the 2K DCP I saw, which is as it should be. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the cinema ratio of 1.85:1.
While the dialogue for the majority of the film is in French, there are some scenes in Farsi. The subtitles are fixed for both languages, which may be a deal-breaker for anyone fluent in French (or indeed both languages) as they will not be able to turn the subtitles off. The soundtrack is available in two options, DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM Surround (2.0). The former is mixed slightly louder than the latter. Other than that, there is virtually nothing to choose between these two as this is very much a dialogue-driven film. The surrounds are used for subtle ambience and a discreet music score. The subwoofer gets very little use, other than adding to a clap of thunder during a storm.
The extras begin with a making-of documentary (25:48). This does follow the usual pattern of a mixture of on-set footage, interviews and extracts from the film. However, this is a bit more in-depth than the usual featurette, as we see Farhadi rehearsing with the cast, incluing workshopping some scenes which are not in the final film, such as Marie and Ahmad's breaking up. We also see the screen tests for the child actors.
Next up are interviews, extracts from which are included in the making-of documentary above. Farhadi is absent, but instead we hear from Ali Mosaffa (6:54), Bérénice Bejo (7:36), Tahar Rahim (5:32) and the film's DP Mahmoud Khalari (8:19). Mosaffa and Khalari speak in Farsi, the other two in French. These interviews follow the usual EPK format of text questions followed by video answers, but as with the making-of, they are a little more in-depth than the norm. Mosaffa talks about cultural differences between Iran (more indirect) and French (much more direct) cultures. Khalari talks about Farhadi's working methods, in particular an urge to not simply reproduce the expected. A Separation used a lot of handheld camerawork, something that was largely avoided here.
The final extra is the theatrical trailer (1:56).