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Film Review

The Past

Iran has always seemed an unlikely source of good films, especially since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that installed the Ayatollah Khomein and created an Islamic republic. The separation of sexes, the veiling of women in public, the harsh and sometimes brutal repression of what the Islamists consider Western influences, including film, all tended to create a climate that would not be conducive to art films. Yet since the 1980's, Iranian film makers have managed to make a number of fine films that have repeatedly won major film festival awards. Think of Abbas Kiarostami's "The Wind will Carry Us" (1997) and "Taste of Cherry" (1999) or Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" (2006), a powerful animated film about a young girl growing up under Khomeini. Or Majid Majidi's "Song of Sparrows" (2008). Another very talented film maker is Asghar Farhadi, who has done a number of award winning films such as "About Elly" (2009) and "A Separation" (2012), which looks at a couple in Tehran getting a divorce with each struggling for custody of their daughter, all against a background of Islamic rule. "A Separation" won many awards including a 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

A year later Farhadi has done it again with his latest film, "The Past". Like "A Separation", he looks at families under great stress, each person attempting to do what is right while burdened by the past or by mistaken beliefs. The film open with Marie, played by Berenice Bejo ("The Artist") meeting a man, Ahmad, at the Paris Airport. They see each other through the glass security barrier, but neither can hear what the other is saying. Later it becomes clear that this is a metaphor for their situation. We assume they are a couple, and they technically still are, but in the drive from the airport to her house they begin to snipe at each other ("Do you miss our arguments?"). Ahmad had expected to stay in a hotel, but Marie takes him to her house. Later we learn that Marie and Ahmad are married but had been separated for 4 years, he living in Iran. She asked him to come to Paris to finalize a divorce. He soon discovers that a boyfriend of Marie, a moody Samir, has been living there, along with Samir's young son. Marie has two daughters from an earlier marriage, a beautiful but unhappy teenager and a younger girl. Ahmad had been a father to them and they adore him. Marie is a loving mother, but needy, often bristly, and still with some feelings toward Ahmad. The three children in the house, plus her job, are clearly taxing, to say nothing of other issues that emerge. The children, all reacting to the adults' stress, act out in their own ways. This is a very complex story with an evolving truth that gathers power as it proceeds, and a haunting ending.

Farhadi knows how to tell a story, and has an great talent for depicting ordinary people attempting to cope with demanding circumstances. His actors are always excellent, even those in minor roles. This is essentially an ensemble piece, and Bejo (Marie), Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad), and Tahir Rahim (Samir) are all masterful. Their performances are powerful yet entirely believable. There is a naturalism to Farhadi's films, and it is evident here. Both men attempt to untangle a complex web which grows more complicated with Ahmad's presence. The children are amazing. How is it possible to get these performances from young children? There is more dialogue than usual for a foreign film, some of it not making sense until later. There is definitely drama here, but most of the performances are understated, in the best way. An apparently simple household task of opening a clogged sink drain shows us much of both men's character in just a few minutes of screen time. "The Past" echoes William Faulkner's famous line: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past'. Like many of Farhadi's films, the only music is during the credits. His cinematography is always very special, especially his closeups, much with handheld cameras. Although the two male actors are Iranian, they speak French (subtitled of course) with a few scenes of Farsi conversation, and the film was shot in France. "The Past" was the Iranian submission for Best Foreign Language film this year but it did not make the nine film shortlist. In any case I loved this very accomplished and powerful film from a very accomplished director. Running time is 130 minutes. Just opened at the Clay, and at this point, the only venue in the Bay Area. So here's to a sweet and good New Year filled with more fine films. Everyone's New Year's resolutions should include seeing more films on the big screen.

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