Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won last year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Separation and narrowly missed a nomination in that category for this year's awards with The Past. Like that earlier film, The Past begins as a perceptive family drama and evolves into something akin to a detective story in its final act, this time involving a reconstruction of past events that may allow the film's protagonists to move forward with their lives. But there's something uniquely universal and relatable about The Past. There are no heroes or villains in the film, just a group of multifaceted characters whose flaws and personal struggles are easily recognized from daily life. Farhadi here becomes not only the face of Iranian cinema in the West but also a world-class storyteller with a style all his own.
Where A Separation went deep into modern Iranian society — which most Western viewers had never experienced in a narrative film — The Past drops us in the bland but surprisingly familiar suburbs of Paris. The film begins with its only Iranian character, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has returned to finalize his divorce from Marie (The Artist's Berenice Bejo), the French woman he left behind to return to his native land. But Ahmad's nationality is only peripheral to The Past's story. He returns to the house he once knew, where Marie now has a fiance, her fiance's young son and two children from a previous marriage — including a troubled teenage daughter with a terrible secret. The even-tempered Ahmad is drawn into escalating family strife through his shared past with Marie and her kids. The past may make us who we are, but unresolved conflicts can prevent us from becoming who we ought to be.
The Past unfolds in a way that's striking in its offhand disregard for conventional storytelling on film. Farhadi's screenplay never forces characters to deliver specific plot information through conversation. Instead, they speak in a naturalistic way that can make an audience feel it's eavesdropping. It takes about 15 minutes before we understand who the main characters are to each other, and at least twice that long to learn their basic backstories. Most viewers will find themselves either riveted or utterly bored by Farhadi's methods — there doesn't seem to be much middle ground. You're going to have to put in the time for the privilege of getting to know these people, which is another bit of truth taken straight from real life. But you may soon find yourself hanging on the film's every word and small gesture. Farhadi quietly shows us how hard many other filmmakers labor to tell a good story, and why they often fall short of the mark.
Farhadi's artistic success also seems to be helping pave the way for young directors from Iran to get films made, and to reach international audiences at a time when every mention of the country seems to inspire heated political debate. Reports from the recent 2014 Sundance Film Festival point to an unprecedented wave of original Iranian films. If The Past is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.