Thursday, June 16, 2016

Short Take: The Past

Writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a genius for intricate, richly nuanced domestic melodrama. His 2013 film The Past, his first made outside his native Iran, shows him in potent form. The setting is Sevran, a working-class suburb of Paris. An Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) arrives from Tehran to finalize his divorce from his French wife (Bérénice Bejo). Four years earlier, his personal problems drove him to desert her and his two step-daughters (Pauline Burlet and Jeanne Jestin). He returns to find himself the only grounded presence in his former family's life. His wife is determined to make a fresh start with a new fiancé (Tahar Rahim), and the man and his young son (Elyes Aguis) now live with her and her daughters. But for all the efforts to build a stable new home, the wife's relationship has only stirred up turmoil with the children. She aggravates things further by manipulating the circumstances to fluster both her fiancé and her soon-to-be ex-husband. Jealousies, resentments, and anger at perceived betrayals are the undercurrent of almost all the characters' relationships. The plotting gets a bit too soapy in the film's latter sections, but overall Farhadi builds the assorted conflicts to eloquent dramatic crescendoes. He is aided in no small part by the fine cast. Pauline Burlet, who plays the older daughter, is especially impressive. She looks like a teenage Marion Cotillard, and she has a similar haunted expressiveness. And one has to mention Elyes Aguis, who is heartbreaking as the fiancé's angry, willful little boy. The film lacks the depth of cultural observation that marks Farhadi's Iranian films, but his directing has taken a significant leap forward. His staging, camerawork, and editing have never before been so assured. The film has the dramatic tautness of a first-rate thriller. The handsome cinematography is by Mahmoud Kalari. Claude Lenoir was the production designer. The clutter he gives the wife's house is particularly inspired.

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