By a curious fluke of timing, two family melodramas open in Boston movie theaters this week. They couldn’t be more different. “August: Osage County” is a smorgasbord of Hollywood art and commerce, from its headliners (Streep, Roberts) to its Broadway pedigree to the Big Acting smeared all over the furniture. By contrast, “The Past,” the new film from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is taut, quiet, democratic, observant — a fine meal made with rare and subtle ingredients. One film fills the belly, the other nourishes the soul; one gives you an instant cholesterol hit, the other you’ll be coming back to taste in your imagination for days. I wish I’d enjoyed “August” a little less and loved “The Past” a little more, but there you go. It may depend on what you’re hungry for when you see each movie.
In any event, “The Past” can’t be denied, even if it’s not quite up to the level of Farhadi’s “A Separation,” winner of the best foreign language film Oscar in 2012. Part of that earlier film’s appeal was the novelty of its setting — for Western moviegoers, at least — and its vision of modern relationships struggling to function in a quasi-medieval theocracy. The new movie takes place on the outskirts of Paris, amid working-class French and Iranian immigrants, and at first the title seems a misnomer. Everyone here is trying to get away from the past. If only it were that easy.
As in “A Separation,” a husband and wife are splitting up. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to France after four years in Tehran to sign the divorce papers; it’s a formality, but the more he hangs around his French ex, Marie (Bérénice
Bejo), the further he gets pulled back into her problems. Bejo, the Argentinian-born actress who came (silently) to the attention of American moviegoers in “The Artist,” gives the film’s centerpiece performance, and it’s a finely wrought exercise in audience frustration and sympathy. Marie’s a beauty whose looks are beginning to fray, a free spirit whose many men have left her with two daughters by different fathers and a third on the way. She makes lousy decisions, snaps easily, smokes while pregnant, and is wholly, disarmingly human — like the haphazard house she lives in, she’s a work constantly in progress. A more fully realized portrait of a woman trying to flee her past by living in the present — and thereby creating more pasts worth fleeing — you won’t find this year.
Next to her, Ahmad comes to seem something like a saint. He should just sign his name and split, but the sorrow of Marie’s adolescent daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is too much to bear. Marie’s latest flame, the father of her unborn child, is Samir (Tahar Rahim), a nice enough fellow with a dry cleaning business and a troubled wife (Aleksandra Klebanska) who’s in a coma following a suicide attempt — the one plot development that tugs “The Past” in the direction of traditional melodrama. (A good thing? A bad thing? Discuss.) Samir also has a little son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who reacts to the chaos in his life with growing anger and intransigence; Aguis, in one of the most heartrending child perform-
ances in recent movies, lets us see the street tough the kid may grow up to be and the battle-scarred survivor he may yet become.
There are secrets and lies, wrong calls made for right reasons, and everyone’s complicit one way or another. Even Ahmad’s an angel, you sense, because of past sins. But where the revelations come crashing out in capital letters in a barnburner like “August: Osage County,” “The Past” is more interested in the ways people minimize the pain and damage of their actions, only to perpetuate them. Farhadi is heir to a European tradition of movie realism that goes back to Renoir, forward to the New Romanian Cinema, and straight through much of what is great in Iranian films of the last three decades: heavy on long camera takes, light on soundtrack music, above all allowing characters to act in ways that prompt insight into human behavior by creating situations and standing back to see what happens. “The Past” isn’t a movie for people who want to escape the real world but who want to understand it better, and one walks away holding beautiful pieces of the puzzle in one’s hands, trying to see how they fit.
Still, is it wrong to ask for some kind of juice, just a little blood on the floorboards? “The Past” is an impeccable work of filmmaking that moves forward steadily and without a great deal of dynamic modulation; you come to care for the characters
-- all of them, even the pills -- while still feeling like Marie and Ahmad in the opening scene at the airport, separated by a glass partition in International Arrivals. On the other end of the running time, though, is the film’s final image, a lulu and a Rorschach test that apparently allows each moviegoer to see exactly what he or she wants to see. I know what I saw (or think I saw): a tear witnessed only by the audience and a hand that never moves. We’re always looking in the wrong places, says “The Past,” and yet we never give up hope.