An Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to France to sign divorce papers with his estranged French wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and finds himself caught in a web of guilt and secrets in the new film from Asghar Farhadi, director of the 2012 best-foreign-film Oscar-winner, A Separation.
Though the setting has changed from the police-state society of modern Tehran to a working-class, immigrant-filled Paris suburb, Farhadi proves again that he can craft a domestic drama that has all the tension of a thriller.
The Past, which has no exposition or flashbacks to help us fill in the details, proceeds to unveil a series of surprise revelations that grow increasingly disturbing. We begin on a rain-soaked Paris afternoon. Marie picks Ahmad up at the airport – struggling to communicate with him through the wall of glass, a metaphor for a communication barrier that's used again several times in the film. Marie and Ahmad meet at the parking zone, cordial but with an underlying tension.
They bicker about her driving, about her failure to book a hotel for him. Marie has two daughters, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), 16, and Léa (Jeanne Jestin), who is about 6. They drop by Lucie's high school to pick her up, but she's left already. The mother reports that she's been acting rebellious in recent months.
Things have changed in Ahmad's four-year absence. The small suburban home near the railway where he used to live is in a chaos of renovation. There's a wary little Arab-looking boy named Fouad, who's playing with young Léa, and he appears to live in the house. New revelations follow with each scene, with the intricacy of a narrative dance of the seven veils. Ahmad discovers a family of complex dysfunction, including an angry daughter who is opposed to Marie's new beau, Samir, a dry cleaner whose comatose wife is in the hospital on life support.
Ahmad tries to fix things – to mend the house, to pacify the unhappy children and soothe their quick-flaring mother, but first he needs to understand what's going on. Through his role as sleuth and mediator, he keeps uncovering new clues.
For about two-thirds of the film, The Past's release of information and emotion is almost perfect. Then, in the last third, it begins to feel contrived, as if Farhadi is trying to show a long chain of guilt, and to see how far it will unspool. The drawn-out revelations feel like overkill, though not enough to spoil what's very good here.
First, there are the performances. Bejo (The Artist), in a role that was originally to be played by Marion Cotillard, won the best-actress award at Cannes last May as the prickly, restless Marie, but every performance in The Past feels precisely right: Mosaffa, as Ahmad, who sets the measured, melancholy tone of the film; Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as Samir, Marie's sulky new boyfriend, who seems to be holding onto some curdled misery; Burlet (La vie en rose) as the time-bomb teen daughter; Elyes Aquis as the truculent little boy, Fouad.
And there's also the world that surrounds these characters. As he demonstrated in A Separation, Farhadi is a master of large drama in small spaces: an overstuffed home of boxy, cluttered little rooms, under a constant state of renovation; a dry-cleaning shop where the stain of the past can't be removed; a pharmacy which offers no cures. Their inhabitants – who fix, clean, unplug and paint their surroundings – fight off the forces of dissolution, but, try as they might, the past isn't quite ready to release its grip.