Opening Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial Rd., The Past begins as Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris after four years to finalize a divorce with his estranged wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist). The ambivalence between them — an easy rapport pivoting to sniping and then back again — surfaces in the first few minutes. Ahmad, a native Iranian who has been living in Tehran, assumes he will be lodging in a hotel. Instead, Marie wants him to stay in her house. She tells him she hopes he will talk to Lucie (Pauline Burlet), her teen daughter from an earlier marriage, and find out why she has been so sullen and combative.
It doesn’t take long to discover the source of that friction. Lucie and Ahmad are close, and the girl isn’t happy that her mom has been shacking up with Samir, (Tahar Rahim, The Prophet), a hangdogfaced dry cleaner whose wife has been comatose for the past eight months. Ahmad isn’t so thrilled to hear about it himself, and he only finds out because Samir’s 8-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is his bunkmate at Marie’s home.
That’s a lot of storyline to chew on, but the masterly Farhadi, who also penned the screenplay, constructs the procession of revelations to emerge in dribs and drabs. Questions are answered, only to spur more questions. For most of the way, the viewer’s proxy is the likeable Ahmad, who navigates through the brewing volatility while confronting his own unresolved feelings about his ex.
The casting is impeccable. Bejo, a major star in her native France, poses a combustible mix of beauty, vulnerability and concealed rage. Mosaffa makes for an appealing Everyman, while Rahim finds the empathy past Samir’s haplessness. Perhaps the most surprising performance is Aguis, who is all too heartbreaking as a damaged child.
What reads on paper like potentially turgid melodrama becomes, under Farhadi’s clear-eyed direction, an absorbing slice of life. Eschewing a music score and shot with naturalistic grace, The Past gives us five principal characters who are generally decent people, if compromised by their desires and complexities. They all have their reasons.