Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian melodrama The Past is pretty much everything that made his previous film, the Oscar nominated and genuinely excellent A Separation, a success except amplified, blown up and drawn out, which means it’s ultimately less successful. Instead of strong characters trying to live this time in the shadow of a divorce instead of actually going through the process of getting one, Farhadi takes decidedly thinner characters and thrusts them into a messy situation full of hurt feelings and piling contrivances that starts to feel far more over the top than it really needs to be. If A Separation was the work of someone effortlessly swinging for the fences and hitting a home run, The Past is someone swinging as hard as possible and only managing a solid base hit.
Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce to Marie (Berenice Bejo, The Artist), staying at her place until everything is finalized. She’s living with a new man and soon to be third husband, Samir (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, and taking care of his young son while his soon to be ex remains in hospital in a vegetative state. Things get messier when Marie eldest Lucie (Pauline Burlet) from her first marriage before Ahmed refuses to be around her next step-father. Ahmed finds himself caught in the middle, Marie-Anne hasn’t been truthful with anyone, and Samir has to take a long hard look at what he things is important in his life.
Farhadi doesn’t overwhelm the audience at first, giving about an hour or so for the characters to establish their uneasy relationships before fully giving into some of his hoarier impulses as a filmmaker. Throughtout most of it, Mosaffa delivers a considerably grounding performance that keeps things from getting too far out of hand. But then comes a point when Ahmed has to leave the film (which would have been a logical point to just stop everything altogether), and Rahim does what he can to keep things under control just as the film around him seems destined to descend into full on histrionic madness.
Neither can get any help from Bejo, who’s forced to ham things up unnecessarily because Farhadi doesn’t know what kind of character he wants Marie to be. He alternates wildly between making her sympathetic, making us feel bad for her because she’s clearly depressed, and finally trying to convince the audience that she’s somehow evil. She’s not a “manic pixie dream girl.” She’s a “manic pixie nightmare,” and this substandard and backhandedly sexist form of caricature makes the film’s exploding powder keg of emotions and seemingly never ending shouting matches decidedly harder to swallow.
At a certain point leading to what narratively is a logical climax everyone stops being a logical person and gives in to almost primal and nonsensical rage. The situation is anger inducing all around and in reality is a hard thing to process, but Farhadi seemingly can’t be bothered with nuance or even a realistic sense of rage. He wants to go for the throat this time out, but he’s abandoning all of the subtlety and quiet conflict that made his first feature such a success. There are elements of that simmering sadness for the first hour and one would hope that these characters can get their collective acts together, but when it devolves into arguments where the loudest shouter will end up winning, it’s just tiresome and bothering.