September 7, 2013



Like his Oscar-winning A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s THE PAST is concerned with the abyss of uncertainty and mystery that lies under seemingly straightforward actions, the ever-increasing complications that become evident whenever one scrutinizes the events and motives of everyday life.

Although the setting this time is Paris, and the characters aren’t the same, in many ways, The Past feels like a companion piece to A Separation.  The central couple in that film was on the verge of breaking up, the wife leaving her husband in Iran, when they became embroiled in a controversy involving another family; here Marie (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) have already split, four years ago when Ahmad left Marie and her children by a previous husband to return by himself to Iran.  Marie has asked Ahmad to come back in order to grant her a formal divorce, so that she can be with Samir (Tahar Rahim), by whom she is pregnant.  The central mystery of the story concerns Samir’s wife, who has been in a coma for eight months after an attempted suicide.  Why did she take such a desperate action?  As in A Separation, there is no ultimate answer, and delving into the matter produces a swirl of possibilities that come to involve Marie’s older daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Samir’s employee Naima (Sabrina Ouazani) and their own tangled motives.  The film is also very mindful of the effect these actions, and the messy emotions that drive them, have on the younger children on the periphery, Marie’s daughter Lea (Jeanne Jestin) and Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis).

Farhadi tells what amount to existential detective stories about moral crimes, and his scripts offer the pleasure of a well-spun mystery, as one clue leads to the next revelation and there is always another puzzle to be solved. He doesn’t, however, trade in neat solutions, and while much is revealed by the end of The Past, far more is still hidden.  To the themes of A Separation, he’s added the question of when it’s proper to move on from the people and events in one’s past, and whether it’s unseemly to live in the present or unhealthy to remain fixated on what’s already taken place.

The Past isn’t quite as urgent as A Separation, because the stakes aren’t as great–although there are potential criminal implications to the storyline, police (let alone Iranian police) aren’t involved.  In addition, Ahmad is a somewhat ambiguous figure, more than merely a catalyst but less of a fully fleshed-out character than the other protagonists.  Despite all the film’s ruminating about the past, we never learn much about his marriage to Marie or why he left her and the children.  This is clearly deliberate on Farhadi’s part, since at one point Ahmad is about to bring up the subject and Marie cuts him off, but it leaves the film feeling somewhat dramatically unbalanced.  Nevertheless, this is a powerful, fascinating tale, marvelously acted by all the leads and impeccably filmed.  Farhadi’s style is very stark, with hardly any music and scenes largely built around lengthy exchanges of dialogue, yet it never fails to be gripping.

Farhadi doesn’t try to be conventionally “satisfying” as a storyteller–he wants viewers to have more questions when his films are over than when they begin.  His remarkable insight into his characters and the fundamental mysteries of their actions are more than enough, though, to make the journey worthwhile.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."