I'm usually quite good at holding it in at the movies. But at some point in early 2012, my once-proud bladder control failed. With roughly 15 minutes left in Asghar Farhadi's terrific A Separation, about to explode, I stepped out to urinate.
I didn't miss much; it's not a movie predicated on twists or big bombastic scenes that tie everything together. But I still felt ashamed, because it was one of the finest things I'd seen on the big screen in quite a while. And I'll never be able to properly fill in that gap, even if I see it 10 additional times.
I don't think Farhadi's latest endeavor, The Past, matches the brilliant despair evoked by its award-winning predecessor. But it doesn't strive to document the disintegration of a loving marriage; the focus is on how (to paraphrase Maximus Decimus Meridius) what we've done in life echoes in eternity. Or at least, for the rest of our days.
Bérénice Bejo, the Academy Award-nominated female lead of The Artist, stars as Marie, a mother of two with an impulsive streak that threatens relationships with her loved ones. But she's not the focal point throughout; we begin with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who has been summoned to France by Marie to finally consummate the divorce they've put off for several years, and we end with Samir (Tahar Rahim), Marie's new boyfriend (and potential husband) who's torn between his comatose wife and the former mistress who may have driven her to attempted suicide.
It begins as a quiet, contemplative family drama; the scenes where Samir and Ahmad are forced to inhabit the same small space are wonderfully tense. But somewhere around the midway point, The Past becomes something more than that: a mediation on depression and despair, on who is to blame for the actions of a profoundly unhappy person pushed to the edge.
You're given enough of everyone's side to understand what has fueled their actions. And you're left to wonder if any of it really matters. Does the decision to take one's life come from years of aching sadness, or can a single awkward misunderstanding at the wrong time push a person far beyond what you'd expect?
The Past doesn't try to answer these questions; it merely presents all the options and leaves us, much like its characters, guessing. Farhadi is quite gifted at dissecting interactions between those in love, especially when that love is needlessly complicated by outside forces. He seems to relish in moments where two people are torn apart by other family members, by a third party, by the unpleasant chemicals in our brains.
His three-pronged storytelling here takes a relatively simple story and adds a new angle, but without being ostentatious. It's not that we're granted numerous perspectives so much as we logically bounce from one point-of-view character to the other; Ahmad's part of the story comes to a close (for the most part) when it should. And while some of the plot reveals feel a little forced – it's nitpicky but I'll never be onboard with a character weeping in a cafe then blurting out a major detail once they step outside – ultimately they unravel at a deliciously slow change of pace.
I haven't even mentioned the children; Pauline Burlet has to perform a boatload of heavy lifting as Marie's aggressively disapproving oldest daughter, and Elyes Aguis shines as Samir's only son, too young to fully realize the horror of being present at his mother's suicide attempt. I feel like the bar for good child acting is raised every year, and both of these kids do an excellent job at illustrating the separate but equal dysfunction of their new family unit.
Nothing in The Past wraps into a neat little package, but that can be very refreshing. American movies tend to follow a set formula, one that foreign directors and writers don't always follow. Sometimes this can lead to an exciting, unpredictable masterpiece; here, Farhadi takes an unexpected approach that adds a bit of depth to the sort of tale we've all seen before.