As he proved in his breakthrough 2011 drama A Separation, the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has found a highly original way to infuse a story of domestic turmoil with the charged tension of a thriller. His new movie, The Past, is hugely ambitious — it’s Farhadi seizing his moment — yet it’s also a wrenchingly intimate tale of lives torn asunder by forces within and without them. Bérénice Bejo, the Argentinean-born actress best known as the silent-movie flapper in The Artist, gives a tender, angry, implosive performance as Marie, a Frenchwoman living in a run-down Paris suburb. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), her estranged Iranian husband, has arrived so that the two can get a divorce, and they’re friendly for about five minutes before their old fights begin to flare. Marie has two children with other men, and a third father figure has moved in: Samir (Tahar Rahim), a somewhat younger lover dealing with a domestic trauma of his own (his wife is in a coma). Rahim plays him with the air of a colder Antonio Banderas.
Like A Separation, The Past presents what seems at first to be an easily readable situation, but as it’s shaded in with the revelation of the history that has led up to it, the reality shifts. The question of whether emails from an adulterous affair were secretly forwarded and, if so, received and, if so, what the consequences were takes on the quality of a CIA op gone wrong. The way the plot keeps churning, turning, revealing new angles makes it look, at times, like one of those Babel-style Rubik’s Cube narratives, only instead of hopping around the globe, Farhadi’s drama unfolds in about seven rooms. In the magnificent and haunting final scene, a character we never expected to hear from sheds a single tear, and she seems to be crying for all of us who are channeling the past through the present more than we could ever control or even know. A