Making the Grades
Note: Also Known as: Le passé
It is raining in Paris when Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) lands at the airport. Waiting for him is Marie (Bérénice Bejo). Hiding the fact she has an injured arm, she greets him with a beautiful smile. They could be any couple happily meeting for the first time or reuniting after an absence. But they aren’t. Instead the estranged pair has been brought together only to insure their division: She has requested he come in person to sign their divorce papers.
As they exchange polite banter, it also becomes apparent that Ahmad knows very little of Marie’s life in France since he returned to Iran four years ago. As the audience, we know even less. And it is soon just as obvious that the scriptwriter (Asghar Farhadi) is not going to provide a narrator or any other convenient literary device to explain their story to us. (There isn’t even a sound track to give us musical hints!) Rather, like an eavesdropper, we are expected to figure out the details of their lives by gleaning whatever scraps of information might come out in their conversations and observing the subtle nuances of their interactions. Although this minimalist technique is the hallmark of a well-crafted film, it does prove to be a bit of a challenge for the viewer who has to carefully pay attention to the acting on screen while at the same time attempting to read the subtitles! The task is a little bit easier if you can speak French—which alas, I can’t. But despite the hard work, the movie is really worth the effort.
Watching The Past is a lot like reading a well-written mystery novel—except there is no smoking gun. Each scene offers clues, yet no matter how well you think you have pieced them together, you turn the page only to uncover some new fact that completely reinvents your understanding of the overall picture. While most movies would be happy to have one such plot twist, this production presents so many you feel positively dizzy. With each revelation your sympathies for the characters ping pong back and forth. By the closing credits, you can only deduce you are as confused as the characters about how to resolve the exposed problems. It is an experience that is totally absorbing—and exhausting!
Most likely youngsters won’t want to devote the concentration needed for this film, and that is just as well because it contains too many mature themes. These include strained family relationships, unwed pregnancy, infidelity and suicide. As well, there are two uses of a sexual expletive, other profanities and frequent depictions of smoking.
As the characters’ lives begin to unravel because of their poor choices, they get tangled in the attached consequences. A lot of anger and blaming ensues. As often happens in real life, those who have committed the worst offences are not willing to accepting responsibility for their actions. Some parties deny any wrongdoing, while others feel guilty about things beyond their control. Sadly, it is the innocent bystanders that seem to absorb the worst of the emotional blows.
So, is this movie a cautionary tale, or does it merely stir the curiosity like the fascination of waiting for an inevitable train wreck? Either way, I found digging into the past of Ahmad and Marie to be a gripping case study in the damage that can be done when justifying the pursuit of personal happiness, regardless of its cost to others.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Past.
Who is at the epicenter of the problems that have shaken these characters? Why are they in denial of their part in the crisis or the fallout that ensued? Who do they blame instead? How can the bad choices of one person sometimes lead to others making equally poor decisions?
Some of the characters assume guilt for the actions of others. What parts of the situation do they have responsibility for? What parts do they have no control over? How does the way they chose to react to the unfolding events affect others and themselves?
Who are the innocent bystanders in this tragedy? Is there anywhere they could seek for help? Should parents place their own wants above those of their children? How have these minors been the victims of adults’ choices before? Is it possible to have real happiness when you take it at the expense of others?