The many physical and social barriers found in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation were transcended through the formal sophistication at play - the 2011 film remains one of the best films of the new decade. With The Past, the director shifts from Iran to France, maintaining the same sense of enclosed space found in his prior work. Though here his ability to transcend becomes somewhat muddled. The finesse is still there, as is Farhadi’s intimate understanding of how men and women function in relationships. But his experiment with understanding those relationships within a European context breeds awkward results. Whereas A Separation’s narrative plights were distinguished by an incredibly detailed understanding of Iran’s social politics, Farhadi’s similar observations within The Past’s Parisian setting is stripped of necessary sociopolitical context.
The towering presence of A Separation can be felt through The Past’s prologue, where in an airport terminal Marie (Bérénice Bejo) attempts to wave down an incoming Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa). Behind a glass pane, Marie and Ahmad almost miss each other, communicating in pantomime before exiting the busy airport. They’re inability to communicate echoes throughout the picture as Marie and children live with her boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim). Ahmad’s presence is to finalize their divorce while maintaining a patriarchal presence for his and Samir’s children.
Ahmad’s intrusion on the lives of Marie and Samir barely seems justifiable in the opening of the picture, where his presence would have easily been remedied and tension absolved by simply holing up in a hotel. The minimal context of the initial hour of The Past has an uneasy grace, where the picture exercises a measure of voyeurism within Farhadi’s complex frames. But as the particulars of the film are exposed, with the film ascribing to twist after twist after twist, the once tenuous naturalism and rhythms that Farhadi develops are co-opted by over-the-top melodramatics. Where does it all go sour? It’s hard to dismiss the writing entirely as it illustrates some compelling points on the differences in social standing that women have in European and Middle Eastern countries. And when a film like Vertigo ends up being a reference point for uncovering the complexities of female subversion through male hegemony, then you’re onto something. But whereas A Separation’s Middle Eastern context lends itself to understanding the social contrivances of living in a nation state that promotes the subversion of women, the same, at least fundamentally, doesn’t ring true of The Past’s Parisian setting. It’s not like gender inequality doesn’t exist in France - the nation ranks behind the United States in regards to gender inequality per this New York Times report. But what’s lacking is a sense of context to punctuate The Past’s findings. There’s no clear sense of subversion because Farhadi doesn’t establish the social context effectively. What becomes of this is a film of impeccable formal prowess but whereas astute social probing should’ve been achieved, we get strained theatrics.