March 07 — March 13
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:30|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Writer-director Asghar Farhadi stunned Western audiences with A Separation, winner of the Oscar in 2012 for Best Foreign Film. The Iranian filmmaker deftly crafted a tale combining family drama, suspense, and subtle social critique, while also providing an illuminating look at a culture that few Americans truly understand. A Separation offered a window into “ordinary” Iranian life that moviegoers of any nation could appreciate, with characters who were recognizable, sympathetic, and human. Farhadi’s latest film, The Past, covers similar territory: it’s essentially about the bonds of family and how outside forces tear families apart. This theme isn’t unique to Iranian society, of course, but Farhadi succeeds at making movies that are universal in their appeal while providing culturally-specific details that give them added sociological interest. If that sounds dry, fear not: Farhadi films are not dissertations. Farhadi always creates a central mystery or situation that draws in moviegoers, getting us fully involved in the characters’ plight. In The Past, the basic plot seems simple: an Iranian man named Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is in Paris to divorce his French-born wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo); she has had many previous relationships but believes that marriage to boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim) will finally bring happiness. As the title suggests, though, there’s a dark cloud over these hopes: the past. What exactly occurred in the past won’t be spoiled here; suffice it to say, family relationships are involved, and they’re more complicated (and emotionally devastating) than the main characters can handle. Marie’s eldest daughter from a previous relationship, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), might seem like an antagonist, but she’s not a villain—no one is painted so black or white in Farhadi’s films—and her mixture of childish egotism, superficial maturity, and genuine love is painfully authentic. None of the characters are what they first seem, but in a realistic rather than contrived way. Farhadi’s first “Western” film offers a unique view of Paris—we’re accustomed to films treating the City of Lights as a mysterious force that liberates the uptight, seduces the innocent, and draws the repressed out of their shells. Farhadi’s Paris doesn’t work that kind of magic here: the Iranians remain dedicated to their own cultural values, and none of the characters really break free of their emotional constraints. Romantics might object to the depiction of Paris as just an ordinary city, a pretty backdrop for attitudes far removed from the French joie de vivre, but Farhadi’s point is that the past is inescapable—a change of scenery doesn’t wipe away deep-rooted beliefs. In A Separation, Farhadi sadly conceded that “family” doesn’t mean what it used to—in today’s world, people come from broken homes, have stepfamilies, multiple families, all kinds of living arrangements. Blood ties have less meaning. The Past continues to explore that idea, also showing characters who try to get rid of the baggage of the past and start anew. The initial suspense of the narrative comes from the fact that Marie doesn’t seem to be letting go of Ahmad as quickly as she might. Her relationship with him troubles Samir, who doesn’t want to become intimately involved with the man he’s replacing. Or is he the one being replaced? The mixed backgrounds of the characters give Farhadi an opportunity to explore the differences between how Iranians and non-Iranians view love, marriage, family, and the “right way” to behave. The film doesn’t take sides; it merely shows that the conflicts exist and people have different ideas. What could have become a soapy melodrama is rendered with great intelligence, subtlety, and attention to psychological realism. The performances are uniformly superb, with Bejo playing a woman with harder edges and more inner turmoil than her charming heroine in The Artist; and Burlet does wonders in the difficult role of the disapproving, self-centered daughter. The complex narrative keeps viewers riveted every moment. Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, applauded the film’s “elegantly patterned mosaic of detail, unexpected plot turns, suspenseful twists and revelations.” While the performances and narrative maintain interest as the film unfolds, it’s Farhadi’s compassion that makes The Past memorable long after the final stunning revelation. One can make a connection between the movie’s theme of reconciling with the past and the idea that Iran and the West should communicate more openly and honestly—and look toward the future. But it’s not a political tract; the message is subtle, available for those who are heartened by filmmakers like Farhadi—people who believe that Art can bring differing ideologies together. The Past is a masterpiece of humane filmmaking, replacing bigotry and xenophobia with genuine insight and understanding—and moreover, it’s compelling as a story: smart, brilliantly-written, terrifically acted, and filled with interesting characters that we grow to care about.
Cinema NewsManhattan Short Presents Film of the Week. Each week the Festival Screens a Past Finalists Award Winning Film Online. Click here to watch the film short of the Week.
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