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Dark secrets unravel slowly in The Past

It's difficult to summarize The Past though, on the surface, it would seem simple: Ahmad returns to Paris from Iran with the goal of finalizing his divorce with his French wife, Marie, who is with another man.

That's pretty much all I knew about this film going into it. And, based on that knowledge, I was like, "An Iranian/French Sweet Home Alabama? What kind of hijinks will Ahmad and Marie get into? Sign me up!" But no, The Past, which was a nominee for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is utterly devoid of Hollywood shenanigans, simple emotions and reconciliations.

In fact, the divorce is just the impetus. When Ahmad returns to Paris, he finds out that not only is Marie with another man, she's with a younger, hotter version of Ahmad: a dry cleaner named Samir. Not only that, but Samir and his young son are living with Marie and her two daughters. Not only that, but Marie's oldest daughter is troubled and carrying around a dark secret. Not only that, but Samir is also married, but his wife is comatose. And Samir's wife is comatose because—and the laundry list of surprises continues.

That's how the story unfolds. Little bits of truth emerge, each eating away at the insides of this dysfunctional family unit. Under the very capable direction of Asghar Farhadi, the story manages to be both impressive and tiring all at once. There is no true main character, as each member of the family has a secret from the past, which both informs and impedes the present. Every scene is a miniature soap opera and nearly every character gets a chance to drop some revelatory bomb and dominate the film for a while.

click to enlarge “Leggo my eggo, dude.”
  • “Leggo my eggo, dude.”

What keeps this film from becoming another "Days of Our Lives" is the superbly understated directing and acting. Most of the scenes take place indoors or in cars: small, stifling spaces that add to the emotional claustrophobia of the film. When the characters do have their revelatory moments, they avoid overacting. We see them tightly framed and up-close, making the subtlety of their reactions more profound. These moments are brilliant in their patience.

The frosting on the cake is the overall look of the movie. This isn't the hipster haven Paris of Amelie or Midnight in Paris. There's nary a cuteness or quirk. These characters are working-class Parisians and inhabit a proletariat space. French doors and windows open up to a view of train tracks instead of the Eiffel Tower. Marie and Samir drive an old dry-cleaning van and not a charming little car. The house that the characters occupy is damn-near ramshackle. It serves as an obvious but excellent metaphor for the state of the family. Marie and Samir are constantly doing things to the house, but all of their work is cosmetic. They clean and paint and cover up, but it's not until Ahmad shows up that anyone thinks about the broken sink. It's not until he arrives that anyone thinks the truth about the family can or should be exposed, or possibly even fixed.

Be prepared for a slow burn. The Past offers emotional bangs and gut punches, but there's no real reconciliation to be hadno Sweet Home Alabama formula where Reese Witherspoon wraps up everything in a tidy rom-com bow. In this case, that's a good thing. Truths worth uncovering take some time.

The Past continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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