“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

— William Faulkner

 

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is back with us with another reminder that Faulkner was, of course, right. But in Farhadi’s films, it is Tolstoy’s words that play an important role: “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In Farhadi’s last film, 2011 foreign film Oscar winner “A Separation,” a more moving story about a family with its own conflict: trying to improve the life of a child by moving away or staying and caring for an ailing parent, had intelligent, educated characters working for a solution.

Here, in “The Past,” Farhadi depicts a group of characters who are less a family than a collection of shattered pieces who will probably never be a functioning family.

We meet Marie, (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist” ) waiting at the airport for her ex husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) who left her and France some years ago, to return to Iran. This is no joyful reunion. Ahmad is only back to finalize their divorce under French law.

The remains of his days with Marie are scattered around like bits and pieces of confetti from a party everyone has forgotten, or even what it was for. Marie, we discover, is an emotional hummingbird seeking a perfect nectar that will never be hers. She has lived a life of disappointments, involving three other relationships in her young past that left her with additional wounded: Lea, a sweet, reasonably smart little girl (Jeanne Jestin) and Lucie, (Pauline Burlet) a bright teenage girl who just wants to be anywhere but here, and we can’t find a single reason to blame her. She remembers Ahmad from her early years and warms quickly to his calm stability. There is also the dry cleaner’s small son who fusses on the edges.

Marie has a new man in her life, a young, married, handsome, not-too-bright dry cleaner, Samir (Tahar Rahim) who appears to be living half in and out at the house. Samir has his own problems: His wife is in a coma and on life support from a botched suicide attempt, that may or may not have been caused by her suspicions of his infidelities. Do you think?

The children in this story are the real casualties, because their real father wisely left Marie long ago and lives in Brussels. The small kids, barely old enough to read street signs, find themselves warming to Ahmad, who is trying to avoid trouble, while mama shouts and dances between him and the dry cleaner Samir. To make matters worse, teenage daughter Lucie keeps trying to run away, and the little boy who has no idea which of these men to call papa, has developed serious behavior problems.

While Ahmad and Samir float around each other in the house, another figure appears on the landscape, a beautiful young clerk who works for the dry cleaner and obviously has feelings for him. She seems to have clues about the suicide attempt that involve a customer and a stained party dress. All of that eventually comes out but it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this troubled menage. What we have here is that timeless comment: a failure to communicate. We have five characters, refugees in fact, in search of solid ground in an emotional and politically shaky world. In a sense, we can, in small and large ways, feel sympathy for them, the way we would for pets who keep running into traffic.

Farhadi, a gifted director/writer who won his Oscar for “A Separation,” cannot be walked away from. In expert and tasteful ways, he gives us a landscape adorned with real life figures full of fear, jealousy, anger, passion and a hunger for stability in a world that has long forgotten what that is.

Farhadi gives us plenty of reasons for us to care, but it’s only the children that we feel for. After two hours with this group, we know that Ahmad is too smart and too old to hang around here for long, and that Marie and her handsome dry cleaner will keep making the same mistakes for the rest of their short confused lives. She will have Samir’s baby, and the very same spring will come again after this winter of discontent. We want to care, but like Ahmad, we simply walk away.

All the players are convincing, especially Berenice Bejo as Marie, and Ali Mosaffa as Ahmad. Tahar Rahim’s Samir plays the stunned lover well. Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari gives us a real world. Certainly director Farhadi will be at Canne again.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.