He has just landed at the airport. She is eagerly waiting for him. When she sees him, she waves. He comes towards her, says something. There is a glass wall between them, so she doesn’t hear him, but nonetheless says something in return. We see her speaking, but there are no words, just lip movements. They both smile at each other and he starts walking towards the exit.
This is the very first scene of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s French language film The Past (Le Passé), and it brings many questions to your mind: Who are they? Are they a couple? Why is she so eager to see him? Are they meeting after a long time? The film answers those questions gradually, but raises many new ones. Within moments, the audience is engrossed in the lives of the characters on the big screen.
Farhadi has this to say about the use of glass windows in all his films: “You can find this type of staging in all my other movies as well. But in The Past I was more pertinent about it. For example, in the first scene of the movie, there is a glass between the two characters. They are talking to each other but can't hear each other. You can understand this even better as the film unfolds: people talk to each other in person but fail to understand each other. The beginning of the movie is in some ways symbolic. It’s foreboding in that sense. Plus the windows suggest that they are, at the same time, close but far away. This was in A Separation too.”
The Past was arguably the best film screened at this year’s International Film Festival of India (IFFI), which concluded last month in Panaji, Goa. IFFI has had a permanent venue in the Goan capital for a decade now, and we can safely say it has established itself, though the central government has still not officially declared it so.
The decision should have been taken long ago, as happens with festivals the world over. The venue never changes, making it possible for the authorities to have solid infrastructure in place exclusively for it. Also, over the years the festival becomes the part of the city’s culture (Mumbai, though, must be an exception as only film buffs are aware of a festival happening in the city, the rest being completely oblivious). One must laud the IFFI selection committee as it has offered top notch films from all over the world, including Indian cinema.
The delegates and the media at IFFI were looking forward to this film, and Farhadi’s past record had everything to do with it. Two years ago, his film A Separation, which won many international awards including the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012, was the talk of the international film circuit. Naturally, hopes were high and Farhadi did not disappoint. In fact The Past turned out to be the best of the 35 odd films I watched. It is also Iran’s official entry to the 2014 Academy Awards (Iran had refused to send any films last year, to protest against a film called The Innocence of Muslims, which was said to have hurt the feelings of Muslims the world over and sparked riots in few countries).
The Past is well crafted, with tight screenplay and brilliant acting. Yes, some of the shocks seem a little contrived, but not to the point of disturbing the overall effect. On the contrary, it creates melodrama and provides a breathtaking experience.
The Past doesn’t talk about the past – the story happens in the present – but tries to raise questions about the past getting entangled with the present, and becoming a hurdle for the future. In a way, as the present is driven by the past, this past becomes the protagonist of the film.
It is the story of Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), husband and wife now separated for four years. Marie is French and lives on the outskirts of Paris, while Ahmad has gone back to his home country, Iran, after their separation. He returns to Paris to finalise their divorce, and to personally ensure a closure without any bitterness.
Marie has two daughters from her first marriage who are very close to Ahmad. Marie now wishes to get married for a third time, to Samir (Tahar Rahim), hence this divorce. Samir has a son, Fouad, of the same age as Marie’s younger child Lea, and the two ten-year-olds get along very well. Meanwhile, Samir’s wife has tried to end her life, as a result of which she ends up in coma, and the reason hinted is her husband’s affair. Marie’s elder daughter Lucie is against her mother’s third marriage, which has started reflecting in her behaviour with Marie. Marie expects Ahmad to talk to her, and make her see how things are.
The story revolves around these protagonists, portraying their dilemmas, their viewpoints and their stands on things happening now or that have happened in the past. Nobody is a villain; we empathise with everybody, and this is the strongest aspect of the film. Like the peeling of an onion, every layer of the story reveals its own tale. After every answer, the stakes are raised and we find ourselves entangled in another quest. Giving examples would give away the story, which is so intriguing it leaves you exhausted. The relationships are delicate, what with one of Ahmad and Samir’s interactions being not so much a confrontation, but them dealing with the fact that one is an ex and other is a would-be. Ahmad tries to fix things, be it the pipe in the kitchen sink, the chain of a bicycle, or the relationship between mother and daughter.
Many scenes bring a lump to your throat, like the one where Lucie confesses to Ahmad she forwarded her mother’s and Samir’s email conversations to Samir’s wife, or where Fouad tells his father he wishes his mother was dead because that is what she wanted. Or the one where Marie tells Ahmad she is pregnant with Samir’s baby right before they enter the courtroom to end their marriage. At one level, it feels like everyone is manipulating the other, but isn’t that what human relationships are about? Don’t we do it in our lives? And we have our own reasons for doing what we do, justifications for our act.
Just when we think – but we still aren’t sure – we have the answers, Ahmad tries to tell Marie about something he did while they were still together, and Marie bluntly stops him, saying she is not interested. Maybe Ahmad, too, had a past he wants to resolve, while helping everyone around. But is it possible to cut ties with the past when one wishes to start afresh? Or does the baggage always remain? In the film, one of Ahmad’s friends says, you must learn to say ‘cut’.
But can we?
The film ends in typical Farhadi style – those who have seen A Separation would know what I mean – leaving many things unsaid. And that is the beauty of The Past.
Meena Karnik is a freelance journalist, publisher, and a film critic. She has translated the award-winning book Bitter Chocolate, and is author of Gautam — the biography of ace glamour photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha.