THE PAST (2013, Asghar Farhadi)
I liked Farhadi’s previous film, A SEPARATION. While I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, it was a mostly well-acted, nicely written chamber drama with two problems: the visuals were a little bland, and random plot points were kept secret from the audience like a cheap parlor trick. With his latest effort, Farhadi has actually fixed both of those problems — his framing, blocking, and photography have all stepped up a level (characters slyly behind panes of glass or plastic, speaking through locked doors, getting attention outside of windows, and sharing information using others as conversational go-betweens), and the plot points kept secret from us at least make sense formally now. Yes there are more bombs dropped throughout this, but I never felt like Farhadi was resisting those reveals out of desperation.
So why the lower grade? First of all, the acting and characterization here reveals a bit of a chink in the writing armor. Tahar Rahim’s performance as Samir is awkward and blank, and not by design. There are times he’s called upon to display emotion and they ring false. And Bérénice Bejo, so wonderful in THE ARTIST, is also good here but sold way short by Farhadi setting her up as extremely unlikable. She’s a shrill, bossy hypocrite who, despite being two months pregnant, has a cigarette in her mouth the entire film. It’s hard to root for her to reconcile with Lucie when we think Lucie would be better off running away to be raised by Ahmad.
Secondly, the plot here is loaded with contrivances worthy of a 1992 episode of General Hospital. There’s the comatose wife, the rebellious teenager, the mystery of the damning emails, the illegal immigrant laundry employee, the collaterally damaged toddler, etc. I was waiting for someone to have a twin brother who was working as a spy. Added to this, too many lines of dialogue in the third act fall back on telling instead of showing — to the point where I fear Farhadi, for as much as he’s progressed as a visual filmmaker, has regressed even more as a writer.