A drama that’s far more thrilling than most so-called thrillers these days, The Past is a movie about people and how their histories impact their present, future, and those around them. It has great performances, an excellent plot, fantastic cinematography, and a filmmaker behind it all who understands how to use cinema to tell a story. It’s a complete, near-perfect movie, and it’s absolutely worth the time to seek out and watch.
It begins simply enough. A man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), has returned after four years to France in order to divorce his wife, Marie-Anne (Bérénice Bejo), whom he left for reasons unknown, unexplained, and ultimately unimportant. She, a mother of two kids — neither of them Ahmad’s — is now in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), himself married to a woman in a coma and with a young son. Ahmad’s arrival in France winds up opening doors better left closed, as he essentially acts as a catalyst to drama which had been brewing but hadn’t yet come to the surface.
I think it’s difficult, if not impossible, to continue describing or even hinting at the way the plot develops from here. There’s little to say of an overarching narrative, and from scene to scene, you have no idea as to where these characters will end up. There are a ton of revelations, a couple of twists to the story, and characters so well-defined and performed that you would swear the film was a documentary. The cinematographic style gives that feeling, at times, as well.
And because these characters feel so real, so raw, The Past seems to matter. It never becomes too melodramatic, even with the bevy of miscommunications, confrontations, and layers upon layers of complexity to the plot and its characters. Despite everyone ready to burst at the seams in each scene — and they often do, giving the actors the opportunity to let out a good cry or scream — you never feel manipulated by the proceedings. It’s because of how realistic the portrait of this family’s life is. Despite their unrealistic situation, it never comes across that way.
The Past has been created with far too much thought and intelligence to be boiled down to any one statement, or even theme. It touches on a bunch of subjects — questionable parenting tactics, multicultural households, affairs, suicide, and troubled relationships among them — and while it might not be about just one of them, it has things to say about all of them. The film works better this way, too, as it can paint a more accurate picture of this style of life, rather than being focused on just one aspect of it, even if the idea that running away from one’s past is impossible finds its way into most of the frames.
That’s echoed in how the film has been cut together. While there are plenty of scenes with heavy drama — lots of fighting, shouting, screaming, and crying go on in this movie — there are also moments of levity. While there are only a few comedic moments, watching Ahmad play with the kids, even though they aren’t his, is fun, and breaks up what would be a continuous stream of emotional moments. You need those breaks. Without them, you get melodrama. The Past is paced perfectly.
If there’s one problem that The Past has, it’s in the main character, Ahmad. You know how some characters show up in a film almost solely to fix the problems of other ones? Usually this is just a supporting character, but in this case it’s one of the leads. Ahmad is such a nice guy, and so willing to help everyone out, and comes across as the least believable person in the film as a result. He’s too much of a Mary Sue to take seriously.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s wonderfully acted and well-written, and you’re probably not going to notice this until the film reaches its conclusion, but looking back you might question just exactly what he did apart from attempt to solve everyone else’s problems, and you’re going to come up without much of an answer. Sure, sometimes he causes more issues than he fixes, but it’s not because of anything other than a selfless desire to help.
Contrasting that, Marie-Anne is the diva of the film, and might just have some ulterior motives behind her actions. Her character is elevated by Bérénice Bejo’s performance. If you thought she was great in The Artist, see this to see what she can really do in front of the camera. Bejo takes what could be a stereotypical and annoying character and makes her human. Tahar Rahim plays a more supporting role until the film’s final few scenes, but in those last moments, he shines wonderfully. Even the child actors, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, and Jeanne Jestin are great in this movie.
The Past is a fantastic movie and presents a wonderfully human drama about life in a multicultural, dysfunctional family. It is perfectly paced, mixing the heavy drama and the lighter moments with precision and care, it touches on a whole host of issues without spending too much time hammering home one idea, it has fabulous performances from the whole cast, and it all feels real, like a documentary. It’s a glimpse into these people’s lives, and it does is in an emotionally compelling way while telling a complex story. It’s just great.