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Thread: THE PAST (Asghar Farhadi 2013)

  1. #1
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    THE PAST (Asghar Farhadi 2013)

    Asghar Farhadi: THE PAST (2013)


    TAHAR RAHIM AND BÉRÉNICE BEJO IN THE PAST

    Stuck: who's at fault this time?

    Asghar Farhadi is the gifted and self-assured Iranian writer-director who won international attention and the Best Foreign Oscar for his 2011 Farsi-language film A Separation (NYFF 2011). Now, like his distinguished compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film in Tuscany (in English, with some Italian) and then one in Japan (in Japanese), Farhadi has shot a film in France (in French, with some Farsi). Farhadi is a filmmaker who draws a great deal of attention to himself. His films are riveting concatenations of intimate, precisely observed family details concerning guilt, responsibility, resentments, and loyalties. The Past is as much focused on those things as A Separation, with a separation, an old husband, a new younger husband-to be, a pregnancy, a suicide, troublesome and disturbed children from multiple parents, people from each generation drawn in several directions at once, wooing, squabbling with, and suspicious of each other.

    In fact this is the trouble: Farhadi has basically redone A Separation and transferred it to France. The details vary, but Farhadi is working over very much the same themes, only with the dialogue in French (with a few short scenes in Farsi). True, the slow, steady, two-hour unfolding of details shows the same masterful control as A Separation. But with the huge shift of country and language comes an erosion of sympathy, atmosphere and of culture. Maybe Farhadi is showing as some say that "free" westerners after all face the same problems of constraint, secrecy, and stasis as arise under Iran's repressive system. But is an Iranian the best person to tell us this? And after a while with its constant surprise revelations and melodramatic misunderstandings this movie begins to seem like a whole season of a soap condensed into a very long, slow two hours. There is also less humor or variety here than in A Separation. We never get a deep insight into anyone's life, or feel deep emotions. There are plenty of child, and adult, shouting matches. But nobody really sits down and has a good cry, despite ample cause for sadness and regret -- the "Past" everyone is picking over and trying to leave behind. Farhadi, whose meticulous control over the film and every line of dialogue verges on the stifling, never stops to let us and his film breathe, and the effect is both wearying and numbing -- even though these people are good looking and the yellow-tinted images of rigorously un-touristy French Parisian exteriors and pleasantly cluttered interiors by d.p. Mahmoud Kalari are handsome.

    Things begin when Marie (Bérénice Bejo), who is French, comes to an airport outside Paris to retrieve Ahmad (writer-actor-filmmaker Ali Mosaffa), her Iranian husband, who went back to the homeland four years ago. A lot of trouble might have been avoided if emails had been exchanged and read -- or in another case, not read. Ahmad's has come to tie up loose ends -- or is it to restore ties? But he wanted to be in a hotel, only Marie brings him home. He seems to make nice with the two little kids there, Foad (Elyes Aguis) and Léa (Jeanne Jestin). Foad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim), Marie's new boyfriend, who turns out to be living at the house in a town some way from Paris where Ahmad used to live. This is a surprise to Ahmad. Marie's arrangements are also a surprise to Samir.

    Partly we seem to be challenged to figure out who all these people are, putting us somewhat in the same place as the characters. Whose daughter is Léa? There is also, and importantly, Ahmad and Marie's teenage daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is angry, rebellious, and insecure. Where she is and where's she's going to spend the night takes up time in the film's action. So does uncertainty about whether Foad will sleep upstairs with Ahmad, this "Monsieur" he doesn't know, or downstairs, or back at Samir's house -- because Samir is going to have to leave the other house to Ahmad while he's there. Things are getting too crowded.

    Despite the theme of "The Past," none-too-subtly hinted at when the car at the airport shifts into reverse, the focus is on a few specific issues and doesn't fill in much background. It's also never explained specifically why Ahmad, who speaks fluent French, chose to return to Iran. Samir has a dry cleaning establishment; it would seem a flourishing one. His ethnicity is never specified, and some non-French viewers seem to have concluded he is Iranian, like Ahmad. The French audience know Tahar Rahim, who plays Samir and gained fame as the young protagonist of Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, is an Arab born in France of Algerian descent. But the big revelation is that though Samir and Marie plan to marry, Samir has a wife in a coma. Puzzling over how and why this happened, and (naturally!) who is to blame provides the focus for a lot of the second half of the film.

    Marie is obviously not quite done with Ahmad, or she'd have put him in a hotel; and Samir may not have made the final choice of Marie and given up on his comatose wife Céline, as the final sequence shows. The real pivot-point, if there is one, may be Lucie. The younger kids may adjust to whatever family rearrangement comes about -- though Foad (well played by the feisty Elyes Aguis) makes a lot of trouble for Marie, Ahmad, and Samir; but Lucie has suffered, she says, through her mother's breaking up with three men in succession. She is afraid that Samir won't take either, and she resents Samir because she thinks he's just going to be a frustration. But sometimes it seems as if, as on daytime TV, more mundane issues rise equally to the fore. Will it ever stop raining? Will that leak under the sink get fixed? How did that lady's dress get stained at the dry cleaner's? Will the illegal worker be hired back? Will Céline awake from her coma? Obviously Farhadi cares about all this material, but when one thinks back over it, it all seems as contrived as some of the crude symbols, like Marie and Ahmad talking through a thick wall of glass at the airport but not understanding each other. Nothing seems as urgent or real as A Separation, and there is the same sometimes limiting view of life as one long squabble.

    Le passé, 130 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes 17 May 2013 where Bérénice Bejo receoved the Best Actress award; shown at many other international festivals. The French script was written from Farhadi's original by Massoumeh Lahidji, who did the French subtitles of A Separation and rendered Kiarostami's Certified Copy into English. The new film was acquired by Sony Classics for US distribution. Limited US release began 20 Dec. Critical acclaim in France (Allociné press rating: 4.2) and the US (Metacritic rating: 84). Shown in NYC at Film Forum.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-21-2013 at 10:01 AM.

  2. #2
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    Your knowledge of world cinema is evident Chris.
    I haven't seen The Past, but based on what you've said, I'd be better off watching Farhadi's A Separation.
    If he just transplanted things to France, then why bother? Is this an exercise in filmmaking for Mr. Farhadi?
    If I was a director I wouldn't be "exercising" anything. I would mean every single shot, every single scene.
    I would never make a movie just to hone my filmmaking skills (or as Oliver Stone said: "Is it for the film or for your peers?")

    Kubrick did something new every single time he stepped behind a camera.
    The only thing that remained the same was the primal visual IMPACT.

    Directors must know that cinephiles are watching. Foreign films with no distribution prospects? THEY GET WATCHED TOO. Don't short-change the audience!
    Last edited by Johann; 12-23-2013 at 01:41 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    I agree that you should watch A SEPARATION. That is the one that will remain what he's known for. I don't know exactly what you mean otherwise. Did I say this was just an exercise? I'm sure Farhadi stands by it, and is a very conscientious director. As I implied, they say he controlled the production (even though for most of the actors he had to work through a translator during the shoot). At the Cannes Q&A, he spoke only Farsi, as did Ali Mosaffa, whose most recent film I reviewed. It's a bit dry and conceptual, but shows great intelligence and sophistication, and he's very confident and likable in THE PAST. My question is whether he knows French or really just memorized all his lines without totally understanding them. If that is true it's impressive (but also arguably kind of fake). Am I right that he wears a toupee? THE PAST was extremely well received at Cannes, with Béjo winning the Best Actress award, which I don't understand but shows people liked this film there. Also the two young women in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR got a joint award, so their acting was also celebrated at Cannes.

    I had similar misgivings about CERTIFIED COPY and LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE. I would hope that if Panahi got out of Iran and made movies in another language they would feel more authentic but being transplanted abroad has its perils for a filmmaker, as we well known from some of the Hong Kong directors.

    See my review of Mosaffa's THE LAST STEP (SFIFF 2013).

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    You didn't say it was just an exercise, but that is the conclusion I came to based on your review.
    Farhadi didn't/doesn't seem to have anything in the cupboard for MOVIE #2.
    Changing locations because you have more money doesn't cut it.
    Movie Number 2 for a new director is the real litmus test.
    Quentin Tarantino showed the World how you deal with expectations for movie #2 after you are hyped up.
    (and incidentally, he has kept rising higher and higher in my mind's eye).

    The "Sophomore Jinx" is a real thing. What else do you have in your bag of tricks?
    How often can you impress people with your work? Your NEW work?
    That's the reality of cinema: you can hit it out of the park, but what will you do for the encore?
    Ask Michael Cimino: THE DEER HUNTER won Best Picture at the Oscars. His follow-up bankrupted United Artists.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Farhadi his seven credits. This is not #2. Did I say that? I think you jumped to that conclusion. I also have not seen others than A SEPARATION. But see these two anyway anyway and make up your own mind. Don't be swayed by me. I have not been a fan even of the extremely well received A SEPRAATION. But I appreciate his skill at intricate plotting revealing family conflicts and interactions. Many adore THE PAST. It was very well received at Cannes. It was not made in France because he had more money. Like Kiarostami probably he finds it uncomfortable to work in Iran now. He has said he wanted to work with Bérénice Béjo and Tahar Rahim, and that he and his work had been very warmly received in France.

    Soon we can see AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY. An American version, in a way. Of family dysfunction and quarreling over the past.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-27-2013 at 12:37 AM.

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