Two bedraggled men sit at a kitchen table, not exchanging a word. The air is heavy with silence, with all the jagged words being stifled, and with the sadness, frustration, anger, and shame of mutually accumulated history. It is one of the few moments of quiet in Asghar Farhadi’s deliberately talky new film “The Past,” in which every character has an argument to make, a bone to pick, and a point to prove. It is also sneakily moving — a necessary pause, and a reminder of Farhadi’s anguished humanism. “The times that they do not speak,” Farhadi observes of his characters, “are the times that we understand them better.”
After the unprecedented success of “A Separation,” the first Iranian movie to win the Academy Award for best foreign language film, Farhadi decided to tackle a new project that required him to leave home. “The story was of a person who had to travel from his country, from my country, to somewhere very far, and this far country had a very important role in the structure of this film,” says Farhadi. The director ended up setting it in France and spent two years living there while preparing and shooting “The Past.”
Like “A Separation,” “The Past” begins with a disagreement. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to finalize his divorce from Marie (Berenice Bejo of “The Artist”), who is now dating Samir (Tahar Rahim). Marie asks Ahmad to check in on her teenage daughter from a previous relationship, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who is acting out over her mother’s new boyfriend. Ahmad is the middleman and the wrench in the works, the interlocutor who bears the weight of everyone’s secrets and attempts to bring peace to a fractured family. Marie’s lingering feelings for him also threaten her future with Samir.
The film begins with Marie and Ahmad at the airport, separated by a glass partition, speaking to each other without hearing each other — a potent metaphor for the film as a whole. “Even though they talk a lot with each other, it seems like they cannot explain themselves to the other characters,” says Farhadi.
“The Past” is structured as a series of anguished tête-à-têtes. The simultaneous presence of three people in a room causes us discomfort, as we wait out the interlude between conversations. Will Marie get back together with Ahmad, or will she struggle to preserve her relationship with Samir?
“It seems like there is a fight, or a contradiction, between an unfinished past and the future,” Farhadi says. “When these three characters are put together, we constantly want one of them to be leaving that triangle so we can go back to the former situation. But like the characters themselves, we the viewers cannot decide which character has the right to leave.”
Farhadi had his actors prepare in rehearsals by fielding costars’ questions about their characters. “My ex-husband asked me, ‘Are you in love with me still?’ And I would have to answer everyone’s questions,” says Bejo.
The director deliberately muddied the waters by keeping Rahim from meeting his costars until just before shooting. “I actually felt a bit unfaithful to Tahar Rahim because I spent three weeks with Ali Mosaffa working, having so much fun, and connecting with him so much,” says Bejo. “And then Tahar arrived, and I didn’t know him so well. I think Asghar did it on purpose, so when I worked with Tahar I felt a bit awkward, like [at] the beginning of a relationship.”
Farhadi made his first short film when he was 13 years old, using an 8mm camera. He would make a short film every year as an adolescent before attending college and studying theater. Farhadi ended up working in theater for seven years before rediscovering his youthful passion for filmmaking.
“The reason I was attracted to theater and film is because I was previously attracted to storytelling and writing,” says Farhadi. “In my family there were people who were very good storytellers. The minute they opened their mouths to tell me a story, the best moments of my life began. I believe it was those people who actually made me a filmmaker.”
Farhadi sees himself as drawing his characters from his own middle-class upbringing and from the vast middle class of contemporary Iran. The same elements — romantic warfare, intergenerational and class conflicts — appear in both “A Separation” and “The Past,” but shifted in the new film to take account of new surroundings.
“In France, some of the immigrants — and I’d like to focus on some of the immigrants — constitute the majority of the lower class, Farhadi says. “But in Iran, the lower class consists of the traditional part of the society.”
Unlike such fellow filmmakers as Jafar Panahi (“This Is Not a Film”), Farhadi has seen his work embraced by the Iranian regime, which was particularly pleased to defeat an Israeli challenger (Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote”) for the Oscar with “A Separation.” Farhadi grows uncomfortable at the mention of political support, and demurs: “We can’t say absolutely that they embraced it, because some parts of the political establishment embraced it, and some parts resented it.”
Farhadi envisioned a wildly different story, with entirely new challenges, and was surprised to discover the ways in which “The Past,” with its corkscrew narrative and starkly opposed points of view, wound up resembling “A Separation.” Both films are about family squabbles in which, a la Renoir, “everyone has his reasons.”
“To me, the essential truth is that no one can reach the essential truth,” says Farhadi. “All the fights and struggles in the film come from the fact that every character has only a partial view of the truth, and they all think that this is the whole truth.”