What does a filmmaker do for an encore after having scored a major international hit? The filmmaker in question is Asghar Farhadi. A couple years ago, Farhadi earned across-the-board acclaim and a well-deserved Best Foreign Film Academy Award for A Separation, a quietly powerful drama about a family in crisis. The country of origin of A Separation is Iran, and its characters are Iranian. But aside from being an exceptional film, what makes A Separation special is that it explores issues that are common to countless families, irrespective of nationality. In this regard, its country of origin matters not at all.
Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation is titled The Past. Like A Separation, The Past is a domestic drama that deals with familial dysfunction. The setting is Paris and it central character is Marie, a Frenchwoman. At the outset, Ahmad, Marie’s estranged husband, arrives in Paris from Tehran to finalize their divorce. Marie and Ahmad are surrounded by additional characters, including Marie’s new beau and various offspring. The scenario spotlights everything from a mother-daughter rift to an angry, rebellious son who does not want to see his father with a woman who is not his mother.
Comparisons between The Past and A Separation are inevitable, and A Separation is such an outstanding film that it would be quite a task to equal if not surpass. Such is the case with The Past. While watching it, I kept thinking about A Separation-- and I found this new film lacking. It seemed a bit too static dramatically, and not very cinematic. But since seeing it, I’ve been thinking about it and I realize that it is unfair to liken The Past to A Separation strictly on artistic terms. The newer film may not match the brilliance of its predecessor, but it still is a serious and knowing work: a film that is well-worth seeing and pondering.
And also, at its core, The Past is more than just an examination of interpersonal relationships and the tensions that exist within families. It reflects on the manner in which the past and past behavior impacts mightily on the present. In other words, you cannot erase your mistakes simply because you wish to do so. Like it or not, your behavior, your actions, will have repercussions. The film also explores the manner in which one chooses to take responsibility for one’s actions, or how one chooses to avoid responsibility.
Of course, one of the keys here is that, in The Past, as with A Separation, the backgrounds of the characters and the cultures from which they’ve emerged are irrelevant. In The Past, the characters may be French and Iranian. In A Separation, they all are Iranian. But they just as easily might be African, Asian, South American-- or American. The bottom line is that relationships are complex, and people are people the world over.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide.
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