In America, our notion of family has always adhered to simplistic models. The ideal was nuclear — husband, wife and two children, preferably a boy and a girl. Statistics told us that, in truth, families consisted of 2.5 children and every time we cited that number, it felt like, in our hearts, we longed for that half-formed other child — some version of them that would complete us, yet remain less than whole.
When we finally began to acknowledge the breakdown of that volatile model, we immediately sought a replacement, which led us to The Brady Bunch solution, the Yours, Mine and Ours option commonly referred to now as “blending.” We assumed these new unions would be based on a degree of symmetry where your two children and my two children would merge into something greater than the sum of these parts (and why not, if you include each of our hanging halves).
Yet failures abound in these conceptual scenarios that we seem content to ignore, choking on the sand covering our heads. We refuse, in our feature films, to examine why families fracture initially, and then we fail to recognize and account for asymmetrical variables, which in turn leads to a distinct and painful marginalization. And so, to learn from our mistakes, we would be wise to look beyond our own flawed assumptions, to others struggling to address these narratives within their own cultures.
Seemingly at the opposite end of the spectrum sits Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker who, in his most recent films, has dared to present sober humanistic portrayals of these complexities that reflect the raw, naked truth we turn away from.
A Separation, his Academy Award-winning film from 2012 (nominated for Best Original Screenplay, winner of Best Foreign-Language Film), captured a married couple faced with an impossible choice — leave Iran in order to secure a better life for their child or stay to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s. Again, American dramas seek clear-cut choices where right and wrong or good and bad are obvious. We are used to the fairy tale, the escape with a spoonful of sugar to make it all go down a little easier. We long not just for our movies to be this way, but our lives.
With The Past, Farhadi ups the ante, tackling the fallacy of blending, but he does so with a degree of subtlety that could be overlooked. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is an Iranian called to return to France, to Marie (Bérénice Bejo), the wife he left behind. Marie wants to finalize their divorce so she can move onto a new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), a younger man with an eerie resemblance to Ahmad. There are children involved, two daughters, but it is not clear until the narrative progresses that the children are not Ahmad’s by birth. He was merely the primary father figure for them when they were young, yet Marie scolds him for his lack of contact with them as if they were his.
Complications exist in the dynamic between Marie and her girls and Samir, who also has a son. Caught up in frustrated attempts to merge and blend, Ahmad’s presence, however brief, only exacerbates things. And of course there are secrets from the past, but as startling as the revelations might be, they are nothing more than unlearned lessons repeated and repeating in the ongoing loop that is life.
A sense of helplessness takes hold, watching Ahmad from moment to moment. Farhadi refuses to judge him or the choices he makes, but it will likely be difficult for audiences to maintain such neutrality. His decision to come to France to deal with the proceedings face-to-face speaks to his honorable character. He wants to see the children, and when confronted with the new realities of Marie’s situation, he even steps up to assist Samir and his son. But the further entangled he gets, we wonder if he has gone too far, crossing these intimate boundaries. This is not his life, his family anymore. We might take that idea and run, questioning whether it was ever his.
Ahmad, somewhat stubbornly, cannot ignore the past and what was forged there. So he seeks to mend the hurt. How much of that initial pain he may have caused doesn’t matter, at least not to him, and that is what truly complicates The Past. Ahmad and Farhadi challenge not only the broken American configuration of the family, but also the conservative values of individualism. The Past begs us to accept responsibility because that is the only way to move forward, to create a new model that represents our imperfections. (Opens Friday at Mariemont Theatre) Grade: A
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