My challenge, dear reader, is to persuade you to see this film without telling you much about it. The way in which the story is very slowly layered is one of its main strengths and to give too many details on the plot would ruin it.
Explaining the back story without heavy periods of exposition is one of the greatest challenges in any screenplay and an area in which writers often fall down. Most big budget movies have long periods of narration in them these days and it seems that the most common ways of avoiding this is either to keep the plot to an absolute minimum, as with Inside Llewyn Davis, or to let the entire story play out on screen, like in 12 Years a Slave.
The Past is different though. There are lots of players with complicated relationships and a lot that has clearly gone on before (hence the title) but we only get a snap shot of their lives and no detailed back story. This means that for the first forty five minutes or so you are wondering how these people fit together and the joy is in gradually finding out through throw away lines and subtle plot points. How refreshing to see a film that credits movie goers with patience and intelligence. It is okay for something like Frozen to treat its audience like children but there are plenty of other films that don’t have any excuse for doing the same thing.
The set up, as I am prepared to describe it, revolves around Marie (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) and Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) who are seeing one another again some years after their relationship has ended. There are new partners and other family members involved but, as I say, the details and conflicts around this become slowly apparent as the film progresses. In doing this the movie grips your interest and it makes it seem as though we, the viewers, are observing something authentic rather than a story that has been carefully constructed on someone’s word processor. The irony being that this is actually far more carefully crafted than most Hollywood scripts.
Of course this is not a Hollywood script. The Past (La passé) is a French picture by an Iranian director. This feeling, like you are watching real life captured on screen, is typical of the other French language films I have seen recently (The Kid with a Bike, Blue is the Warmest Colour and Rust & Bone) and I wonder if this is something that this particular industry is especially good at. Clearly four films is not a sturdy sample but I am seeing a trend.
The Past has some excellent performances and while it feels like a play (in a good way) there are some interesting filmic motifs. There is one particular symbolic theme that plays with glass as a barrier to communication; a fragile and transparent block to stop people being properly heard. This all just adds to the movie.
The concept of the film is not totally new; it feels a little like a Tennessee Williams work and there are elements of The Philadelphia Story in the dynamic between the two men, albeit in a less comedic style. It seems mostly reminiscent of the 1967 French film La musica, where two old lovers meet up to finalise their divorce, but with all these possible influences, the execution still feels fresh.
I thought The Past was a simply superb film. Every year I put together an inventory of my top ten movies for those twelve months and in 2014 the list starts here.
Is this one for the kids?
The Past is a 12A in the UK due to its adult themes but refreshingly there is no nudity, no sex, no violence and only two cases of swearing.
The ISWYS Test:
The Past sails it’s way to a 3 on the Bechdel Test and shows women and men evenly as passionate, flawed and real people. It isn’t always positive but it is honest.