The Past (Le Passe) Asghar Farhadi (Fr; 2013) Benebice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Moustafa
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 8th April 2014; Ticket £8.80
Farhadi's film The Past, left me with the opposite set of feelings from when I had viewed his earlier movie a Separation.
Separation, set and filmed in Iran, left its plot unresolved in the hands of the couple's daughter. Resolution of the plot was suspended, the film leaving the audience on a note of the possibility of hope in the figure of daughter Termeh and the choices she was about to make in relation to her life. There was also in Separation an underlying but palpable optimism engendered by interactions with the agencies and institutions of Iran. They were painted as being mediated by people, not automatons. Despite and in spite of the heavy hand of religious authority there was determination by people to live between the cogs of the bureaucracy which gave life a wary degree of freedom, vitality and unpredictability. The manner in which film was shot, from the opening shot of the replication of documents from under the glass of a photocopier, to the presence of the hand held camera. lent insight and edge to the way social relations were seen and represented.
In Separation the process of living never seemed a matter mechanical contrivance. Islamic diktats provided the psycho social constraints within which individuals had to fashion their own solutions and subjectivities. A creative process.
Cut to the Past.
The Past feels like a mechanical death trap. Farhadi's machine of exile. The Past feels like the film of a man exiled and reduced to going through the motions of being alive when cut off from the mainspring of his home life force. The Past communicates as a film of entrapment, the kind of entrapment that we choose for ourselves. An exile facing nothing but the perversity of the self. When socio-religious forces impose, those feeling imposition work within the interstices of life to find free movement particularly in thought When we entrap ourselves within psychic mechanisms of our own making, there is no way out. We cannot even think. We experience a mental entombment. And this is the picture that Farhadi paints of exile in France. French society (in no significant respect different from any other Western society) as a deterritorialised subjectivity. Fahadi's subjects, both native and exile are doomed to recurrent failure of the body and soul, locked into pointless replication of their emotional emptyness. They resign themselves to going though the motions of living, as incapable of movement as the woman on life support, on whose image the film appropriately ends.
As with a Separation Fahadi begins the Past with a situation that centres around the issue of uncontested divorce between two parties. In Separation the situations expressed contain several narrative lines; none of these lines ever take over the energy and forces at work within the scenario.
In the Past however the situations comprising the emotional and social forces that contain his subjects are quickly consumed by the narrative, that entraps the protagonists into the unwinding of a sort of whodoneit (more accurately a whyshedidit). The situations are gradually taken over by one event in the past, the attempted suicide of the wife of one of the protagonists. The plot development, with its contemporary Scandinavian intricacies) takes over all the relations in the film, and spreads though the scenario like a cancer, until with only the mechanics of plot revelation at work, nothing else is left alive in the film. Everyone is reduced to being a cipher of the plot.
The Past moves from being observational to purely reactive. As the plot is subjected to increasing emotional amplification; its only recourse is to increased melodramatic acting out by the actors. Fahadi leaves himself no space to develop the film other than the conventions of soap opera.
This default to soap may have been a deliberate artistic decision. A parody of the poverty of European dramatic expression if so Fahardi doesn't make this clear. Perhaps it was a business decision; to bow to the pressure of the production companies that he should make a film with a plot that would comply with the conventions recognisable to Western Audiences.
But whatever the reason, the consequence for the Past is that this form simply takes over the film. And the Past yields decreasing returns as the situational aspect of and relations in exile are glossed over. The real problems are thrown overboard for the melodramatic machinations of the plot within which every one becomes a puppet attached to the apron strings of soap necessity.
In accordance with its soapy structure, The Past is shot in the style of industry standard set ups. The camera is mounted on tripod or steady-cam, stable and recording shot and reaction to shot, mostly in confined interiors. The nature of the confined interiors do introduce an element of claustrophobia but not sufficient to counterbalance the constraining conventions of TV. For a film of two hours duration the standard camera work becomes another impoverishing element that is locked into the film, as if the director had given wanting to think and had decided just to push through the set ups.
There are features within the scenario that suggest Fahadi had a original glimmering of another movie. The rain: the incessant rain experienced by the exile, both real and metaphorical. Fahadi's delight, particularly at the start of the film, in slight mistakes, corrections and missteps, all characteristic of actual life and pointing to associated states of mind. And his scripting device that exploits the idea of individuals needing to return to go back to finish or clarify something incomplete. A Dostoevsky type of compulsion and determination to get to something underlying. A device that invoked reflective issues that were lost as melodrama won out.
The Past felt like a movie that started out as one thing, the situation of exile; but ended up as an other, a series of events pressed into reactive drama. As in Separation Farhadi tries in the Past to balance the scales of his discourse on the perspective of the child. But in the Past his wise child Fouad, simply does not have the necessary freedom of Termeh in Separation, to make a real contribution to the balance of the script. He is too young and too overwhelmed by the mechanics of the events to have a real voice. So the film dies back and ends without a thought to sustain. The final shot is a close up, of the clasped hands of the man and his deeply unconscious wife. Perhaps a little like Fahadi himself, in exile torn between life and death.
On a final note the script does have an elementary confusion at its semantic core. Celine the comatose wife is repeated referred to as having committed suicide. But she has not committed suicide, she attempted unsuccessfully (as far as the script reveals) to commit suicide. She is still alive. I often feel when a movie presents a basic inconsistency at its core, it is a sign that there are deeper problems with the material, personal or structural, that were never resolved.