Film: Broken relationships in ‘The Past’

Photos courtesy of Memento Films

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” arrives at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. In a followup to his Oscar winning film, “The Separation,” Mr. Farhadi once again probes the painful fault lines of a dysfunctional family.

This time the family consists of an estranged Iranian husband, Ahmad (Al Mosaffa), returning to Paris from Tehran after four years to finish the paperwork for his divorce from his French wife Marie (Bérénice Beja of “The Artist”). Marie has prodded her husband to complete the divorce proceedings because she is pregnantby her new fiancé, Samir (Tahar Rahim).

When Marie picks up Ahmad at the airport, the frictions caused by unresolved issues from the past announce themselves loud and clear. Even before they meet, the terminal’s glass wall keeps them from communicating. Mr. Farhadi uses windows and mirrors frequently to signify the failed attempts at communication in this family, and he is a master at depicting the little details that help sustain hostilities. Ahmad remains attached to Marie’s two daughters from an earlier marriage. Sixteen-year-old Lucie (Pauline Burlet) can’t stand Samir and remains at odds with her mother, who hopes Ahmad will help make the peace between her and her daughter. Lucie’s little sister Lea (Jeanne Jestin) has found a willing playmate in Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aquis), now living with his dad and Marie.

Since Marie has neglected to arrange hotel accommodations for Ahmad – she claims she wasn’t sure he’d show up – he ends up bunking with Fouad in the already overcrowded household that use to be his. As Mr. Farhadi does with windows and mirrors, he uses the under repair state of the family home to reflect the tangled web of resentments. This is a district of Paris far removed from romantic landmarks like the Champs Elyssée or the Eiffel Tower seen in “Midnight in Paris.” Samir, who runs a dry-cleaning business, and Marie, who works as a pharmacist, reflect the hard bitten, working class milieu of “The Past.”

Each relationship in this blended family has its seemingly endless complications. Samir will not be free to marry Marie until he agrees to take his unconscious wife Céline off the life support that is keeping her alive after a suicide attempt. The illegal immigrant Samir employs in his dry cleaning store may or may not know why Céline has tried to kill herself. Lucie may or may not be implicated as well.

The morass of past problems that stymie these characters is a far cry from the middle-class, sanitized American woes of Theodore, Catherine, and Amy in “Her.” What resonates most deeply in “The Past” is the way the children are trapped in the troubles made by the adults in their lives. Seeing Lucie, Lea, and Fouad suffer is compelling evidence of the irreparable harm adults do when they can’t make peace with one another. The mood of “The Past” may be melancholy, but it offers a clear-eyed look at the fallout from family dysfunction.  

“The Past,” Friday, March 28, and Sunday, March 30, 7:30 pm; Saturday, March 29, 4 pm, M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $9 M.V. Film Society members, $7 ages 4 and under. For tickets and information, visit