Cannes Review: 'The Past'

Asghar Farhadi's "The Past" is, without question, the best episode of "The Young and the Restless" I've ever seen.

It is a nosy film - one that revels in a slow, unending onion-peel. In its maws: an extended, unconventional family inexorably drawn to dysfunction. Mostly set in a warmly chaotic home undergoing symbolic restoration (on a patch of land cut from the neighborhood on a diagonal) "The Past" is just about as good as a relationship drama is ever going to get. The plot is teased out with deliberate grace, the performances are sublime and the revelations, even the most melodramatic, feel right and true. It's big canvas stuff painted by a new master.

Much like Farhadi's Academy Award-winning "A Separation," "The Past" eventually focuses on an unknowable event - what went through the mind of a woman as she tried to kill herself. But we're getting way ahead of ourselves. "The Past," in ways that reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami's "Like Falling In Love," takes its sweet time in delivering the key info about who our key characters are. This unusual approach is unsettling, keeping you hyper-attentive to the drama happening in the present scene. Indeed, it is about 45 minutes in (I checked) until we discover how our protagonist Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) is related to the three kids in this picture.

Turns out, he isn't - at least not by blood. "The Past" begins with Ahmad arriving from Tehran to sign the documents to finalize his divorce with Marie-Ann (Berenice Bejo.) She has two daughters from a previous partner - brooding Lucie (Pauline Burlet, whose resemblance to Bejo is downright freaky) and chipper Lea (Jeanne Jestin.) Also at the house is Fouad (Elyes Aguis) a moppet with some anger issues. You may think he's Ahmad's son, but turns out Marie-Ann is currently shacked up with a different Persian, Samir (Tahar Rahim) whom she intends to marry. Except his wife (Fouad's mother) is currently in a coma.

Ahmad's visit is perfectly timed to observe, contribute to and maybe correct a multitude of emotional conflagrations. Perhaps Marie-Ann's decision to get the paperwork in now is a call for help, as Ahmad is much more of a father figure to the very troubled Lucie than her absentee biological one. Lucie's adolescence is laden with guilt - not all of it imagined - and her journey is perhaps the most emotional in the film.

But everyone in the cast gets an arc and everyone gets their flashpoint moment and each of these performances are sublime. "The Past" opens with a frustrating dialogue through thick, sound-proof plexiglass. Ahmad and Marie-Ann are this close to communicating, but just can't truly connect. It's not a subtle metaphor, but Farhadi takes the material and gives it an elegant spin. You could say that about the entire film, in a way. This movie is gossipy and hand-wringing, but crafted with enough grace that you could safely call it art.

SCORE: 8.6 / 10