Director Asghar Farhadi (Darbareye Elly, A Separation) subtly captures a certain fact about domestic life: even small moments and gestures contain large amounts of potential energy. A kindly way of taking a woman’s hand (which we don’t even see, only hear about), a stain on a dress, the repair of a toy, an email which may or may not have been sent, a hotel room which may or may not have been booked in advance, and a friendly tap on the door—in a domestic context, and in the expert hands of Mr. Farhadi, these small moments are everything.
Further, in casting the adept and subtle actors in two of the main roles—Ali Mosaffa (Ahmad) and Bérénice Béjo (Marie)–he furthers the idea of the body as the stage of domestic turmoil. The body in its small gestures reveals the potent drama and conflict brewing beneath ordinary domestic situations. Most extraordinary is Ms. Béjo as Marie, who can turn her perfect, symmetrical and delicate face into the face of a woman who is difficult to love. Though herself doubtful of her moral ground, she is determined to make changes in her life, even at the cost of others’ feelings. In Le Passé she has a way of turning her impatient gaze toward the men in a way which makes them wither and fumble. They fight back, but then she uses the full force of her body to make a point, leaning in accusingly or walking away in disgust. Marie will move them to change at any cost. It is a successfully complex portrayal of a woman in turmoil—there is no artifice, no condescension, no role, no stereotype.
Ali Mosaffa, as Marie’s ex-husband Ahmad, brings his unique expressivity to the camera, his gentle eyebrows a foil against Marie’s fierce eyes. (He is definitely one of the most compelling actors today). He is the warm glue that holds together the many versions and shifting alliances in this ever-expanding family—and like it or not, he is the purveyor of truth, knowing that it all must come out in order for them all to forgive and to move forward. During the course of the film, Mr. Mosaffa uses his physicality to tell us about his fragile relationships. With Marie’s children, Lucie and Léa, it is a firm arm around their shoulders, like a wise and kindly uncle. With his ex-wife’s boyfriend, Samir, it is his body turned away slightly, but still open, indicating both civility and a slow reluctance to accept. With Samir’s son Fouad (the astonishing child actor Elyes Aguis), it is directly forward, hands in a business-like gesture, as though Fouad is his equal. Ahmad is the physical embodiment of the film’s essence: when love changes hands, and when change comes in different narrative and domestic conveyances, we respond with a complex mixture of resignation, frustration, abrupt moments of tenderness, and mourning.
While there are several domestic mysteries to be solved in this drama, it is most exciting to watch each character move in and around the other, expressing love in one turn and anger in another. Mr. Farhadi rehearses his actors rigorously, the way a theater director might, and it is successful: the gestures and the moments are perfect but utterly natural, and the actors’ physicalities are used wonderfully to embody the film’s themes.
Le Passé (The Past), dir. Asghar Farhadi, 2013. 130 min. Memento Films Production and Sony Pictures Classics. In French and Farsi.
Le Passé premiered at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where Bérénice Béjo won Best Actress. It is Iran’s official entry for the 86th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It will be released in the United States at the end of December.