The films of Asghar Farhadi form an interesting counterpoint to the films of Joanna Hogg, which I wrote about last week. While both directors are fascinated by the way that group dynamics can impact upon our emotional lives, Hogg’s career has seen her transition from the emotional opacity of formalism to the conceptual opacity of surrealism while Farhadi’s relentless pursuit of emotional truth frequently has him brushing up against melodrama as he did with the magnificent Oscar-winning family drama A Separation.
There can be no greater validation of cinematic art than two directors approaching the same subject matter in radically different ways and yet somehow managing to produce works that feel as natural as they are satisfying. It is easy (and exciting) to imagine Joanna Hogg dancing round the question of who was responsible for the miscarriage in A Separation while Asghar Farhadi would arrive on Archipelago’s Scilly isles and refuse to let go until everyone came clean about what it was that was making them unhappy.
There’s a wonderful moment in the British situation comedy Peep Show when the emotionally constipated Mark Corrigan is confronted by a sister who wants to discuss their traumatic childhood prompting Mark to lament that the people who want to talk always seem to win. Asghar Farhadi’s latest film The Past is sympathetic to both sides of Mark’s observation: Yes… the people wanting to talk usually get their way and No… this isn’t always for the best.
The film opens with Ahmad (Ali Moussafa) meeting Marie (Berenice Bejo) at an airport. Separated by a glass partition, their words drowned out by airport noise, the couple are unable to speak but despite the connection between them being almost palpable, we later learn that they have been separated for four years and that Ahmad has only returned to France in order to finalise the divorce that Marie needs in order to get re-married.
Farhadi works very hard to make us fall in love with Ahmad: As soon as the couple leave the airport, Ahmad begins complaining about how everything has changed since his last visit. While this professed (and clearly exaggerated) alienation serves to distance him from both Paris and Marie’s home, he seems completely comfortable slipping into the role of parent to Marie’s youngest daughter Lea and her partner’s son Fouad. When Fouad throws a tantrum and knocks over a pot of paint, Ahmad silently breaks out the white spirit and begins cleaning the floor. When the kids are hungry and Marie is out at work, Ahmad takes them shopping and prepares a Persian meal only to then sit at the head of the table and crack jokes about how Fouad will need to marry a Persian woman if he develops a taste for Iranian food.
These simple character beats show how subtle a writer/director Farhadi can be as it is easy to imagine a character that arrives at his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s home and takes charge of the kids seeming either overbearing or territorial but Ahmad’s recognition that everything has changed gives him a degree of emotional distance while Ali Moussafa imbues the part with so much gentleness and sensitivity that it is almost impossible not to fall head-over-heels in love with the character. Farhadi later accounts for Ahmad’s excess of agency when it transpires that Marie invited him to stay at her home in order to broker a truce with her eldest daughter Lucie over Marie’s decision to marry Fouad’s father Samir (Tahar Rahim). In other words, Marie gave Ahmad a license to come and be the grown up and Ahmad assumes that patriarchal role without coming across as either a bully or a sexist. He is effectively a fantasy dad.
Much of the film’s narrative energy comes from Ahmad’s attempts to not only broker a truce between mother and daughter but also to understand why Lucie is finding it so hard to accept Marie’s decision to move on and get re-married. This means that Ahmad spends the first half of the film wandering around asking awkward questions and slowly putting the pieces together like an Iranian Columbo. Farhadi’s use of mystery tropes and story structures proves so compelling that it deliberately unbalances the film and leaves you yearning for a Kitchen Nightmares-style reality TV series in which Ahmad and Fouad travel the land solving family disputes with the help of unobtrusively produced Iranian cuisine. Anyone for Gormeh sabzi and a shoulder to cry on?
The reason I talk about the film being deliberately unbalanced is because it keeps inviting us to compare what we know of Marie and Samir’s relationship with what we imagine life to have been when Marie and Ahmad were together. The film feels unbalanced as while Ahmad is a hugely charismatic presence who naturally fills the role of benevolent patriarch, Samir comes across as a rather ill-tempered and adolescent interloper who only ever opens his mouth to shout at Marie or the kids. Why does Lucie want to talk about her problems with Ahmad? Because Ahmad’s strength, gentleness and wisdom make him a natural dad whereas Samir’s anger, selfishness and resentment positions him much closer to what most parents are actually like. Some reviewers have taken this lack of balance to be an error on Farhadi’s part as it makes Marie’s decision to marry Samir seem completely irrational and unrealistic but this assumes that The Past is about a simple choice between two men whereas in reality it is about the compromises that make a life.
The more awkward questions Ahmad asks, the more truths he uncovers and the more truths he uncovers, the more we come to realise that there is literally no way for everyone in this relationship to be happy at the same time. Psychologists and social workers encourage us to think of our families as support networks but in truth, they are a series of painfully brokered compromises between different sets of demands and expectations. For example, while both Marie and Lucie expect Ahmad to come back into the lives and fill the role of father and husband, Ahmad reveals that his time in that role left him in a deep depression that forced him to leave Marie and return to Iran. Everyone knows that Ahmad would do a better job of looking after Marie and bringing up her daughters but the fantasy is off the table and Marie is forced to deal with is a reality of her own making. Marie knows full well that she got involved with Samir for entirely the wrong reasons and that marrying him would prove disastrous not only for herself but also for her daughters and yet she refuses to let him drift away because she feels guilty about Samir’s wife attempting suicide and ending up in a coma. Everyone knows that Marie and her daughters would be better off not getting involved with Samir but the reality is that Marie and Samir are both too guilty to let each other go and too attached to their previous spouses to give each other a proper chance. While The Past contains some fantastic characters and some absolutely spell-binding performances, its real strength lies in Farhadi’s genius for articulating the many miseries that will keep a family together.
The film ends with a scene reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker as Samir tries to get his comatose wife to respond to external stimuli only for the camera to pick up what might be either a movement or a trick of the light. This too speaks to Farhadi’s uncompromising view of human relationships as how often do people keep bad friendships and toxic relationships alive based upon nothing more than hope and what they think might have been a genuine emotional response? Relationships are seldom cast in black and white, they mostly come in purgatorial greys that make it just that little bit harder to pull the plug when the time comes to move on. By the end of the film, Farhadi’s characters are completely honest about how they feel and yet this emotional transparency only serves to make things worse as, without comforting lies, everyone is forced to live with the knowledge that they lack the strength to improve their lives. The Past may be a touch less melodramatic than A Separation but it is no less gut-wrenching.