The Past is the new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for his 2011 work A Separation. In some ways, the new film picks up where the last one left off. Set in Tehran, A Separation dealt with an Iranian family on the verge of a literal separation as the wife prepared to leave the country for France to make a better life abroad, her husband refusing to consent to a divorce. None of the same characters or actors appear in The Past, but you could be forgiven for thinking in the first few minutes that it is a sequel. We begin with an Iranian man Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) arriving at the Paris airport to be greeted by his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo). They are four years into a separation - she has been living in France, he in Iran - and he has come at her request to finalize a divorce.
Marie and Ahmad both seem intent on dispatching with this unpleasant task amicably, quickly, and tidily, but anyone who caught Farhadi's first film will know how unlikely this is to occur. Depicting tiny lives embroiled in enormous, almost unendurable, inescapable turmoil and tragedy is Farhadi's style. The viewer never quite knows what will come at the characters, what will emerge from their past to obstruct their present, but we do know that whatever it is, it will certainly not be quick, pleasant, or easy.
As with A Separation, we get to know the characters and their situations by a process of slow accumulation. Farhadi's narratives are unhurried, unfettered, peripatetic, they play out in ordinary, cramped, often claustrophobic domestic spaces where anything might happen, and it often does, and it usually acts only to entangle and enmesh the characters further with each other.
Little seems to be happening at first - a certain narrative spaciousness and unpredictability are a part of the director's style - but we're hooked in, slowly piecing together the characters' situations and pasts as in a detective story. The events that occur in his domestic dramas are not exactly "spoiler alert" territory, but to reveal details about the narrative would be to diminish the experience of watching his work. Farhadi has a way of alternately concealing and revealing information, of slowly unraveling a story, and to tell too much would be to needle with his art. His characters want to set up things so they can live ordinary, minor, simple lives, but the world insists on throwing them tragedy on the ancient Greek level: huge, more than they can possibly endure or understand, the universe quickly and casually stripping them of any pleasant notions or illusions.
Many viewers will end up preferring A Separation for the way it delved into and revealed more about Iranian society. Here, we are in a secularized world where the difficulties are seemingly more interpersonal, not as broadly cultural or societal. But The Past is still powerful stuff. One testament to Farhadi's power as a filmmaker - there are many - is the nuanced performance he elicits from actor Elyes Aguis, whose every movement, expression, and utterance evoke the existential rage of someone unable to wrap his mind around the burden of an unspeakable tragedy. It is surely one of the most authentic and moving portraits of inarticulate inner torment an actor has ever brought to the screen. Aguis is eight years old.