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Cannes Review: ‘The Past’ Is a Brilliant Meditation on Secrets & Lies

But Asghar Farhadi's first film since "A Separation" may be tough to beat for the Palme d'Or

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” This is the thrust of Asghar Farhadi‘s “Le Passe” (“The Past”), which screened on Friday at the Cannes Film Festival.

This is the kind of film that leaves you changed by the time the credits start to roll. And like everything else in Farhadi’s style, those credits take their time, eventually disclosing a moment that is as important as every other. 

Farhadi’s “A Separation” was among the best-reviewed films of the year when it debuted two years ago, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That film was about the new and old Iran, about separating from an oppressive culture that could not move forward. “The Past” is about another kind of separation — how we let go of past loves, how children learn to cope with new families as they pick up the pieces from broken marriages. 

Getty ImagesLike “A Separation,” “The Past” dives in and out of different storylines, filling in seemingly meaningless bits of information until each one is put together like a piece of an intricate puzzle that ultimately reveals a vivid truth. In fact, the film opens with two people reconnecting after time apart, and we don’t really know anything about them except that they knew each other once.

An excellent Berenice Bejo (left, with Farhadi), displaying 10 times the range she showed in “The Artist,” plays the lost love of Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa), who has come back also for reasons unknown. But those reasons do eventually get divulged; Farhadi just prefers to have us get to know the characters before we hear of their troubles. 

Farhadi never gives any character or actor short shrift; each has space and time to move through the various emotions that wash over them. Eventually, we find out more and more about why their lives turned out the way they have, and by the end, we're left to wonder whether those lives will remain intact or break apart.

Rather than boring us with us with superficial resolutions, Farhadi takes us deeper and deeper into the story, finally unearthing the sticky business of love. 

“The Past” is a reminder of what kind of storytelling is possible without an over-reliance on focus groups, without studio execs muddying the waters. Farhadi is a confident storyteller; he knows what he wants to say and he takes his time saying it. This gives the actors freedom to explore. They alternate between emotional outbursts and serene acceptance.

Some might be inclined to see the film as a soap opera because many of the dramatic details are surprising pieces of information. But all of these secrets that are slowly divulged were there at the film’s start. It is a matter of finding the right moment to let the audience in on it. That is, perhaps, Farhadi’s greatest gift as a writer. As a director he is brilliant in how he depicts a world so real you feel as though he simply stuck the camera into someone’s private home. Drawers full of junk, unexplained piles of stuff everywhere, absent the look of a set designer. It feels as if you are a fly on the wall, watching the drama play out.

The Past“The Past” is less architectural than “A Separation” in that it relies more on the turns of emotion. But like “A Separation,” much is built on the faulty foundation of a lie. Probably no other filmmaker has so thoroughly examined the powerful impact and subsequent collapse of lying, even when the best intentions are at play.

The truth will always give you complete endings to things. But a lie can bring false hope, or misconceived ideas. Undoing that lie is ultimately what “The Past” is about.

Farhadi’s film will be tough to beat for the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or. This is the kind of film that justifies this festival — a reminder of the pure power of story.  All too often we have our stories dictated by those who only have audience satisfaction in mind. Few and far between are those that meditate on who we are at our core. It takes wisdom and experience for a filmmaker to get there, even though only takes a couple of hours of a viewer’s time to drink it in.