Few emotional needs surface with more regularity than the need to be understood. Even where unconditional love would mitigate such a need, self-doubt and guilt can keep that need present, as it is throughout Asghar Farhadi's The Past.
In 2012, Farhadi's A Separation became the first Iranian picture to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. His international follow-up The Past stars his fellow Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo as Marie, a woman uncomfortably inhabiting the space between three not-quite marriages. There's her own failed marriage to Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who arrives—at the end of four years of separation—to at last sign divorce papers; her pending marriage to Samir (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet); and Samir's marriage to Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), who has lain in a coma for eight months.
An element of mystery surrounds why Céline wound up in that coma and who may be at fault. But one thing is certain: the home to which Ahmad makes his conspicuously uneasy visit is a place of creeping misery. Marie's patience with Ahmad is at its testy limits (a sprained wrist she attempts to hide isn't helping her mood), and the children of the household—teen Lucie (Pauline Burlet), her younger sister Léa, and Samir's son Fouad (Elyes Aguis)—are nursing their own metaphorical wounds.
That none of the children are biologically Ahmad's, and that he's nonetheless demonstrably a good father—or could be, if given the chance—is one of the film's many quiet ironies (plus he makes a great ghormeh sabzi). Lucie and Léa are children of Marie's first marriage, but Lucie, in particular, remains strongly bonded to Ahmad, which only adds to the awkwardness of Marie's hopeful life transition. Tensions only rise when Samir, who's meant to remain clear of Ahmad's visit, gets underfoot and, not long after, when an angry Lucie distressingly takes off.
The Past is a story of near-constant negotiations, each with a present and practical near-term end in mind but even more powerfully driven by that need to be understood. Life has a sad way of making that enormously difficult, but Farhadi isn't defeatist. The film's immediately striking opening imagery and its haunting closing tableau offer metaphorical language for the challenges and possibilities of communication across barriers.
Superb acting all around helps to make The Past one of the most satisfying dramas of the year, from Burlet's sophisticated juvenile performance to Aguis' uninhibited one, from Rahim's unexpected depths, beneath a surly surface, to the suffused-with-sadness modern dance so delicately performed by Mosaffa and Bejo. With patient sensitivity, Farhadi expertly elicits sympathy, followed by empathy, for each character, almost in turns, to resist misguiding the audience to easy answers. Eventually we come to understand each of these people who need to be understood, and thereby feel deeply for them.