Asghar Farhadi’s powerful but unraveled film starts as a domestic drama and then shifts into a mystery. Strangely, the further it pushes the mystery angle, with secrets peeling off like onion skin from the knotted core of the past, the less engaging it becomes. Farhadi’s greatest strengths lie in the parsing of intra-family conflict, where expectations and resentments bubble all around like a musical score. He’s on less sure footing when it comes to building tension by way of soap-operatic revelation. But give the man a husband and wife and a kitchen sitting between them as though it were the battlefield of their lives, and he’s in his element.
Marie (Berenice Bejo) is a French woman who we first see at the airport, anxiously trying to get the attention of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). As the reunited pair back to the house they once shared, Farhadi parcels out some background crumbs. They used to be married, and now Ahmad has returned from Iran to finalize their divorce. This helps explain Marie’s curious behavior. First she’s thrilled to just put her eyes on Ahmad again. But in no time she’s resentful about everything and is trying to score points. Unfortunately, there is an audience for their simmering skirmishes. Her children are at the house, ready to witness it all.
In Farhadi’s last film, the lacerating A Separation, the drama was all about the threat of a family falling apart. Here, Marie’s first family has already suffered a wound with the loss of Ahmad, and now she’s trying to put it back together with Samir (Tahar Rahim), her current boyfriend. Early results aren’t promising. Showing a lack of judgement regarding men that seems endemic to her personality, Marie brings Ahmad back to her house even though Samir and his boy Fouad (Elyes Aguis) are around as well. Almost to her surprise, Samir and Ahmad do their best to get along and just get through it. Meanwhile, Marie gnashes her teeth and chain smokes, looking for revenge but not sure who she should take it out on. It’s an effective but not exactly layered performance, with Bejo jittering at the same level of tension throughout. Rahim and Mosaffa are more nuanced, particularly Mosaffa’s mild-mannered charm that reveals surprising depths of resilience as the story darkens.
The Past is at its best when there’s less going on. Like his countryman Abbas Kiarostami, Farhadi can work magic just by letting his characters explore a situation and feel each other out. The early scenes of this film, where Ahmad is just trying to find his place in Marie’s chaotic household of slamming doors and punished children, make for incredible, delicate drama. Marie’s girls, teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and grammar school Lea (Jeanne Jestin), hang back initially, unsure what to make of Ahmad. The scowling young Fouad is the heartbreaker of this part of the film. His sullen but still hopeful expression is like that of every nervous child who’s had to watch the adults tear each other apart over nothing. He’s just old enough to be prideful but young enough that every angry word wounds.
When the film delves further into Marie and Samir’s relationship, Farhadi loses the confidence of these early housebound scenes. There’s a hint of the soap opera in this plotline about Samir’s comatose wife and how she entered that state, enough so that it clashes with the more confident earlier domestic drama. New wrinkles keep presenting themselves, folding in Lucie’s adolescent melodrama and more conveniently timed revelations than can be easily swallowed. But the longer the mystery of the coma wife drags on, the less Farhadi keeps control of his story and characters.