Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013]

MPAA (PG-13)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars)  RE.com (4 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RE.com (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review

The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013] (written and directed by Oscar winning Asghar Farhadi [IMDb]) continues a wave of insightful, generally gentle, personalist dramas coming from Iran in recent years.  I've already reviewed two such films here Farhadi's A Separation (orig. Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) [2011] which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012 and Adel Yaraghi's Meeting Leila (orig. Ashnaee ba Leila) [2011].  A third Iranian film, by Rafi Pitts, The Hunter [2010], not nearly as gentle but still very much personalist in nature (about a troubled man and his family) I was able to see when it passed through Chicago sometime last year, but I wasn't able to write a review of it (for lack of time).  Everyone of these films has been excellent, films that if I were Iranian I would certainly be proud of, and they are films that offer Westerners an opportunity to see how Iranians would like themselves to be seen (beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric that American comic Jon Stewart of the Daily Show has had the insight to remind us is often driven by the requirements of populist politics across the globe).

Any Westerner who's actually gotten to know an Iranian or two during his/her life would come to appreciate how proud they are of their 3500-4000 year old "cosmopolitan" culture (they've been on the "Silk Road" since its beginning ...) who'd really like to compare Tehran to London, Paris or New York (Chicago from where I write, would seem to to most Iranians as being of  "second city" status, sort of the Tabriz of the United States, "nice" perhaps but not of "first league" status like the other Western capitals listed above or ... "one day" Tehran again...).  Even the structured/hierarchical Shiite Islam, dominant in Iran, would compare (and this would by my own insight) far closer to Catholicism than what most members of both faiths would (at least initially) like to admit. 

I do believe that the age, cosmopolitality of Iranian culture and even the paternalism of the (presently overbearing) ascendant Shiite "Church" in Iran make for fertile ground for the making of the personalist dramas coming from Iranian film makers today, just as similar personalist films were produced in post-Fascist Italy of the late 1940s (one thinks of the films of Vittorio de Sica [IMDb]) and during the Czechoslovak "New Wave" of the "Prague Spring" era of the 1960s.  For personalism, focusing on the dignity, problems and immediate relationships of the humble individual, can be poignant, _safe_, and even a subtle platform for protest when (fill in the regime) becomes overbearing and entering into parts of the lives of individuals against which most people would begin to chafe.  Interestingly enough, a big exponent of Christian personalism was none other than Pope John Paul II.

So then ... the current film, The Past (orig. Le Passé) [2013], has absolutely nothing to do with politics ... :-) ... but is instead a personalist drama about the final spasms of a marriage between Ahmad (played by Ali Mosaffa), Iranian, and his Parisian French wife Marie (played by Bérénice Bejo). 

At the beginning of the film, Ahmad, flying in from Tehran, is picked-up at Paris' airport by Marie. Why?  He's flying into Paris, after having returned to Iran some years before, at Marie's request to finalize their divorce.  Why?  The marriage has been dead for years now and Marie's found another guy, interestingly enough another Iranian immigrant/expatriate living in Paris, named Samir (played by Tahar Rahim) who she wants to marry.

The nationality/similarity in appearance of Samir to Ahmad is not lost on Marie's oldest (teenage) daughter Lucie (played by Pauline Burlet) of yet another relationship of Marie's (previous to Ahmad) who tells Ahmad "she's only marrying Samir because he looks like you."  Needless to say, Lucie's not excited about Samir's entry (as now her third father figure...) into her life.  One could say that she's had it with her mother in this regard. 

There are two other children in the mix.  There's Lucie's younger, 8-9 year old sister Lea (played by Jeanne Jestin) and there's Samir's again 6-7-8 year old Faoud (played by Elyes Aguis) from his marriage, also to a Parisian woman, who we find out, is lying in a coma after trying to commit suicide.

Now why did Samir's wife try to commit suicide?  That's much of the rest of the film.  What becomes clear is that Samir and Marie had entered into an affair prior to her attempting to commit suicide.  Was this a factor?  Yes? no? maybe?  To the story's credit, after exposing this central sin of the story -- the affair between Samir and Marie (after Ahmad's more or less permanent departure for Tehran...) -- the rest of the film is really about the nuances and distributed culpability for the sin and its effects.

And here Catholic moralist would be proud: (1) because it's absolutely clear that there was a fundamental sin here, and (2) it's _also_ complicated (NO ONE except for the littlest of the kids comes out looking good here).

Then there is a final question: Is a life (or a marriage...) "in a coma" truly over?  This is a gentle, nuanced film NOT done by a western-style (there are no rules) atheist but by someone who's still fundamentally a "there are rules believer."   Fascinating! 

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