The Past (Le Passe): A Movie Review

18 Jan

The first thing I said to my husband after watching the brilliant new film The Past (Le Passe) by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi was, “Man, those foreigners sure know how to tie a scarf.” The second thing I said was, “Did you see how messy everybody’s kitchen was? I loved seeing everything out on the counters.” But The Past is not really about scarves or kitchens—although the gritty, concrete details of real life figure prominently in the film. It is about the mess in peoples’ heads. About what complex creatures we are, and how we sabotage ourselves, and how we live lives of secrets and shame which we dread dragging into the light because as long as we hide them from ourselves, the results of our actions may sit as a lump in our throats, but might not be as painful as if we knew the answer for real.

The story, told with a constant, delicious tension, begins when Ahmad (wearing an excellently draped scarf) arrives in France from Tehran to meet with his soon-to-be ex-wife Marie-Anne. The instant they see each other, a crackling of attraction and repulsion arcs between them. They bicker over how he backed out of coming one time, how she promised to book him a hotel and didn’t, and “did they want to start those fights again.” They drive to her house—a seedy attached house right near some train tracks that is a total mess, as she is slowly repainting it (“Wasn’t the old color better?” Ahmad asks.) She all but insists he stay at her house, along with her daughter (7?) Lea and a slightly younger boy named Fouad. It turns out that a new man, Samir, lives with her, and that’s why she wants to finalize the divorce with Ahmad. From the beginning, it is clear that Ahmad is one of those rare people who have the ability to see things as they are, to be gentle, to listen, to tease out secrets—but to still have his own flaws and biases. He is both a part of the complex mess of Marie-Anne’s life and  a catalyst to unravel the secrets that haunt other characters. Fouad, whose character is brilliantly played, is deeply ambivalent about staying at Marie-Anne’s house. But he doesn’t exactly want to go “home,” either, because his French mother tried to commit suicide by drinking detergent in front of one of Samir’s employees (he owns a dry cleaning shop—Marie-Anne is a pharmacist working across the street.) and Fouad himself, and now lies in a coma in a hospital, halfway between life and death.

It would not be fair to give away more of the details of this taut, twisting story. Asghar Farhadi (

won an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2012 for the movie A Separation, which was one of the best movies I have ever seen, about a couple who adore each other but are also in conflict for a very humane reason.

As I mentioned earlier, the homes of the characters were as messy as their lives. Marie-Anne has had a number of chaotic relationships. Samir is wrestling with guilt over his wife. Ahmad left France because he was unemployed and depressed—there is a brief allusion to how some people aren’t cut out to live in a foreign country, hence his move back to Iran. The children—who also include a ravishingly beautiful teenage daughter Lucie—are confused and disturbed by their chaotic parents. And yet the parents are also quite attentive and demanding. When Fouad acts fresh, Marie-Anne picks him up, carries him to his room and locks the door. When Fouad refuses to get out of the Metro with his father and hangs on to the pole, crying, Samir yanks him out roughly, while some other passenger helpfully tosses the child’s backpack out the door. “That wouldn’t happen in America,” I found myself saying to the husband. The parent would probably get arrested for child abuse! But as soon as the subway doors close, Samir gets down to Fouad’s level and tries to find out what is really troubling the sensitive, defiant child.

At one point, Samir says something like, “There really is no past. There is only the present and future for us”—in the sense that they have to decide what to make of all the information of the past and move it into the future. What Samir says is true. Whatever happened in the past is over. We may cringe because we remember being hit, we may keep our fingers away from a fire because we remember being burned—but whatever the lessons of the past are, we can only actually live in the present. However, despite Samir’s hope to leave the past behind, the film shows, een up to the final scene, that the past has a deep hold on our souls that is very difficult to dismiss.

Writing Prompt: What is something from the past that haunts you?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: