In the edge city of Sevran, 10 miles from Paris, a literally broken home is having its leaks and its paint job repaired by its inhabitants. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who ran away four years ago, is returning to finalize his divorce. Director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) works here with the well-known French movie star Berenice Bejo, giving her a role of superb complexity. Ahmad's soon to be ex Marie-Anne (Bejo) is a pharmacist with two children from two different marriages. Currently, she's seeing Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaning store operator who has his own young and troubled little boy.
Marie-Anne's impatience with men could never be mistaken for shallowness or sluttiness: under direction this strong, her urge to roam looks like integrity. The dark, fierce Bejo doesn't merely play the kind of person who is certain she's right when she's wrong. Like everyone here she's a manipulator—The Past plays like a version of Dangerous Liaisons in which none of the players have thought out their next move.
The children who get torn up in the process include the excellent Pauline Burlet as Lucie, a character who is one of those rare adolescents with an excuse for a look of dire tragedy.
The Past may ultimately be hill-of-beans problems—hedged by the kitchen sink, the clothesline and the nearby railway tracks. The trains give tension and symbolic violence—a display of mechanical force, a quick escape route to speed away from these family troubles.
In Farhadi's last and better-received film A Separation, we knew who was getting into bed with everyone: the mullah-driven government of Iran. Here the repressions are internalized. Rather than lying to the authorities, the characters are lying to themselves.
If the material seems less momentous than that Iranian hit, Farhadi's style still dazzles. Every scene is pregnant with meaning. Little gestures have to be interpreted by us as clues: the most significant stained dress since the Clinton impeachment, the passive-aggressive way a girl hands a hot teapot to her mother's new man, or the clasp of hands between a husband and his wife. The Past is not a cavalcade of guilt to be cleared with bursts of stagey truth-telling. The Past is rather a morally complex mystery, without a detective to stand outside the drama and identify the one truly guilty party.
PG-13; 130 min.