Ahmad has no idea what he’s getting into.
After four years back home in Tehran, he has flown to France to finalize his divorce decree from his ex-wife to be. Or so he thinks.
She has somehow neglected to make the hotel reservation he’d asked her to make, so he’ll have to stay in their old house together. Before he has even entered it, he sees a strange new boy in the yard named Fouad playing with his adorable former stepdaughter. Fouad, he’ll soon learn, is the sullen and troubled little son of his ex’s new man – someone his ex says she told him about, but out here in the audience we doubt it increasingly as the film proceeds.
Without worrying at all about who Fouad might be or how he got into his old menage, he fixes the chain on the kid’s bike.
Soon, after entering the house and dealing with his ex’s mysteriously angry dithering over who will sleep where, he has fixed the drain, made everyone a delicious Iranian dinner and cleaned up some paint Fouad spilled all over the floor.
It’s the way his next few days will go. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) – who may have been summoned back by his ex chiefly for the humiliation value of his presence (his theory) – turns into this dysfunctional extended family’s instrument of reparation, revelation, nurture, cleansing and emotional healing.
Secrets will be revealed before he flies back home. And secrets within secrets within secrets. And if his incarnation of solid masculine compassion and virtue seems a wee bit suspiciously like that of the all-purpose domestic and sexual repairman played by Josh Brolin in the entertainingly absurd new film “Labor Day,” this couldn’t possibly be a more different kind of film. Nor could it possibly be better when compared to “Labor Day.”
Written and directed by the great Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi – whose “A Separation” won the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar – “The Past” is soap opera with neither the soap nor the opera. It’s domestic melodrama with laceratingly believable naturalism replacing the melodrama.
Some of the contrivances here – emails and how they were delivered – sometimes seem like 21st century Age of Information versions of the Victorian contrivances in the novels of Thomas Hardy. But believability is the supreme virtue here. You know and care about these people and very quickly.
This is a world of continually rising and falling domestic discord played out in a lower middle class suburbia bounded by pharmacies and dry cleaning establishments. It’s a world where teen daughters feel terminally displaced and formerly depressed women lie comatose in hospital beds. And somehow at the heart of the whole continually revelatory narrative is a stain on a dress whose origin you still don’t know at film’s end despite its role in everything else that happened.
It is the past that is recovered for these people. The one ever-heedless person always eager to leave it behind – Ahmad’s ex Marie (Bérénice Bejo) – engenders everyone else’s emotional pain. It is part of Farhadi’s exquisite talent that she is never painted with villainous broad strokes.
There are, as I said, secrets to be steadily uncovered before the film is over, which gives it considerable suspense along the way, amid the skirmishing and suffering.
But what you’re watching is straightforward, detailed domestic life for Ahmad and Marie and their ever-widening sphere of family. There is no music at all in the film to cue your emotions. Nor are there flashbacks to be seen. Everything about the magnetic pull of the past is told through dialogue and contemporary imagery.
That’s how we discover completely what happened to these people we so quickly come to care about.
It’s Ahmad’s agency that brings truth as well as some peace to his former stepdaughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and his ex’s new lover and apparent husband-to-be Samir (Tahar Rahim). And some understanding of Samir’s angry and deeply troubled little boy Fouad (Elyes Aguis) who should be playing, going to school and greasing his bicycle but is being batted from home to home and bed to bed and covered in parental chaos. It was he who has to watch the way his mother tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning fluid.
It’s a hugely powerful film by one of our 21st century masters.
3½ stars (Out of four)
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Running time: 130 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language and adult themes.
The Lowdown: A man returns to France from Iran to finalize his divorce and finds himself drawn into a whirlpool of domestic need and chaos. In French and Persian with subtitles.