Among the hurdles faced by the characters in Asghar Farhadi's drama The Past is the inability to communicate clearly. The trouble starts in the opening scene, when a woman meets a man at the airport gate. They wave but, divided by a wall of security glass, neither can hear what the other is saying.
The man is Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian who has returned to France after a four-year absence to finalize his divorce from the woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, of The Artist). But what initially seems like a simple procedure between amicable former partners grows complicated, their relationship-in-limbo challenged by the unresolved past and an uncertain future. The untidy nature of domestic relationships is familiar turf for Iranian writer-director Farhadi, who made About Elly and A Separation, which won the 2012 Oscar for Foreign Film.
Early on, Ahmad discovers Marie has a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who is sharing her under-renovation (ahem) home. Samir has brought his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), to join Marie's two daughters from another relationship. Marie tells Ahmad that the eldest, teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is troubled, and asks him find out what's wrong.
Thus, Ahmad functions as our guide, as he tries to sort out the new family dynamics. To say more would spoil the film's drip-drip-drip of revelation, nearly all delivered through casual dialogue and body language. Subtly, the focus shifts from one character to another: Ahmad to Marie to Lucie to Fouad and finally to Samir. One thread leads to another, and what is eventually laid bare is a group of interconnected people struggling to function in the wake of a devastating event.
This past matters — a lot — particularly in how individuals interpret or process it. Farhadi is fond of literalizing that dynamic: This film about mishandled emotional baggage also features actual mishandled baggage, and in one scene, Marie reverses her car but almost has a collision because her vision out the rear window is partially obscured.
Set in unglamorous Paris, the family drama may move too slowly for some viewers, despite a few tantrums. The material, though emotionally catastrophic, is set on simmer, and there is no tidy resolution. But beyond the mechanics of the plot, The Past is an exploration of perceived truths, the judgments based on them and the collateral damage that occurs. Life is a mess, in part because of what has come before. There's no escaping it, only the hope of muddling onward with a modicum of understanding.