“Even if the director is sure about what he is going to do,” says Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, “it’s best that he lets the actors and crew think that they are improvising, or that their meaningful comments are being listened to. They want to believe that they have a part in making this film.” As a writer myself, I don’t knock him: I’ve always marveled at the way directors put their artistic vision in so many other people’s hands. As a viewer, though, I take pause.
In Farhadi’s latest film, The Past, an Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) travels to France after four years away to finalize his divorce. Unbeknownst to him, during this time, his wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) has initiated and consummated an affair with Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry-cleaner whose wife is in a coma and whose unborn child she is carrying. Ahmad arrives at the house he once called home to find that Samir and his young pouty son, Fouad, have been living there with Marie and her two daughters by an earlier, pre-Ahmad marriage, Léa and Lucie. Lucie, a teenager so unhappy with her family life that she only ever comes home because she has nowhere else to sleep, hopes that Ahmad might be able to convince her mother not to marry Samir. All this is what Ahmad is referring to when he asks Marie: “Why do I have to be here in the middle of this shit?”
In the very first scene, Marie meets Ahmad at the airport. Behind the glass wall of the waiting area, she tries in vain to catch his attention. It’s an effective—if calculated, as Anthony Lane suggests—image of the disconnect between the two. But there’s another glass wall in the scene, one that cuts us off from the characters and puts us in our place as non-participating spectators: when Marie finally does flag Ahmad down, they talk through the glass. They talk, but we don’t get to hear what they’re saying. A few seconds later they’re in the car. Ahmad coughs, and we get the film’s first real line of dialogue: “You still smoke?” asks Marie.
Pause here to remember, for contrast, the opening of Farhadi’s 2011 success, A Separation. A man and woman sit side-by-side facing the camera. In a volley of dialogue—the subtitles can hardly keep up—they explain the complex status of their marriage: if he won’t leave Iran with her and their daughter, she demands a divorce so that she can go without him; he consents to the divorce but refuses to give up his daughter, and argues that he can’t leave because he has to care for his elderly father, who has Alzheimer’s. The judge turns down the wife’s divorce appeal, forcing her to settle for a separation, which sets off a two-hour chain of events.
Immediately, then, Farhadi has given us the film’s premise, the rules of the game, so to speak. Now, in a sense, we can play along. On top of this, the arrangement of the frame places us in the point of view of the judge—think Las Meninas—drawing us close into the scene: these people are speaking to us, each making their case for us to decide.
“You still smoke?” I do love this line—and much the dialogue in the first act of The Past—for its clever economy: with essentially no information about these people, we learn in three words that they have a past relationship but that they haven’t kept it up. This is hard-won, hardworking dialogue, and I can understand Farhadi not wanting his actors tampering with it. But as the film goes on, this kind of carefully controlled dispensation of information—also known as withholding, also known, unflatteringly, as “a kind of narrative drip feed” (Lane again)—begins to grow tedious. At a certain point, perhaps not until a second viewing, we realize that the suspense that results from not knowing the basics of the story’s premise is at least a little bit cheap.
Should we be surprised if a film called The Past spends a lot of time and narrative energy circling around backstory? No. But that doesn’t mean we have to excuse the film for undermining our desire to invest in its characters and their actions.
In A Separation, we get to watch what happens as it happens: with his wife gone, the husband hires a pregnant woman to help him care for his father, but one day he returns home early to find the woman out on an errand and his father fallen to the floor, one hand tied to a bedpost. When she returns, they argue and he ends up literally pushing her out the front door. Soon after, she has a miscarriage. The rest of the movie explores the complexities of this situation, peeling away layer after layer like an onion, to borrow scholar Hamid Dabashi’s metaphor. It’s not that Farhadi doesn’t withhold and then feed out important information—for example, that the woman left the house to go to the doctor’s office or that her husband has a history of abusing her. But because we have actually seen the fateful argument in real time, we are in a position not only to care how it’s interpreted by the court in the second half of the movie, but also to judge for ourselves, based on what we’ve witnessed.
The heat of The Past, though, comes to us secondhand. After the divorce papers have been signed, much of the work of each scene is to communicate a complicated incident surrounding Samir’s wife’s coma. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll simply suggest that I found the debated details nitpicky and tiresome. The question, in A Separation, of whether the husband knew the hired woman was pregnant when he pushed her out of his house was just as nitpicky, though much less tiresome. Because we learn the story of the comatose wife so indirectly in The Past—related as it is entirely through dialogue, with no flashbacks—it loses its immediacy, its punch. We haven’t been asked to participate. In fact it’s the scenes that unfold in the present that work the best, suggested one friend who saw the movie with me. And she’s right: we’re gripped by the film’s new tensions and relationships—not what we hear happened between Samir’s dry-cleaning employee and his wife at some point in the past, but what we see happening on the screen, say, when Ahmad and his ex-wife’s new fiancé are left alone together, now. Alone, that is, except for us, watching.