Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: "The Past"

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 130 minutes

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi knows how to create compelling, naturalistic scenarios - as evidenced by 2011's A Separation - but his latest film leaves quite a lot to be desired. In A Separation, Farhadi crafted an electric look at a couple struggling to move forward in their lives. With The Past, Farhadi shifts his focus to the way past events, recent and distant, come up to haunt the present. Yet Farhadi's look at the past proves far less compelling than his previous film's portrait of the struggle to move forward. 

The solid performances and confident directing are stuck trying to sort out a script (also by Farhadi) that remains frustratingly unfocused. Though the opening scenes seem effective, albeit much quieter than A Separation's fiery arguments, they quickly give way to mundane padding. When Marie (Berenice Bejo, who picked up the Best Actress prize at Cannes back in May) picks up her ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) at the airport, the film seems headed in the right direction. The two actors have a comfortable, lived-in chemistry that Farhadi never mishandles or over emphasizes. It may not be as attention-grabbing as Separation's opening scene, but it sets the stage nicely and avoids coming off as though Farhadi is repeating himself.

Yet once Ali settles in (he's in Paris to finalize his and Marie's divorce), The Past starts to wander off. The film runs for 130 minutes, yet the most notable stretch after the opening scene doesn't arrive until 80 minutes have elapsed. Barely anything in between begs to be examined or probed for greater depth. There are no actively bad scenes in The Past, but there are a large number of them that are barely more than functional. The writing creates occasional sparks, but nothing substantial enough to start a real fire. 

More troubling is Farhadi's meandering focus. The Past begins as Ali and Marie's story, and gradually becomes more about Ali. That is, until it no longer needs him, and jumps over to Marie and her new boyfriend Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim). Later on, Marie drops off as well, leaving the film's final scraps at Samir's feet. Shifting focus across protagonists isn't inherently wrong or misguided, but The Past certainly doesn't stand as a strong example. None of the main characters feel properly anchored or fleshed out, even after several delicate secrets come to light. 

By the time the (admittedly poignant) final scene arrives, one is left wondering what on earth the point was. For a film that spends so much time attempting to build up its characters, they rarely feel whole, as though they know their time as the film's central focus is about to expire. The Past starts off promisingly enough, with a set-up filled with ideas about past and present relationships colliding with each other. But beyond that set-up, there's hardly anything worth talking about when it comes to the execution, other than the head-scratching lack of focus. 

Farhadi proved his talents as a writer with A Separation, yet his script this time around is the film's Achilles Heel, rather than its best asset. And even though The Past is never truly bad, the directing and the performances aren't enough to significantly offset the deficiencies in the writing. It's the epitome of a respectable, yet totally unremarkable middle-of-the-road drama from a writer/director who is capable of so much more.

Grade: C+

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