I’ve just seen my first great movie of the year*. It’s not flashy. It’s not ground-breaking. But it is very, very well observed, richly acted (including a terrific performance from a young boy, always hard to achieve), and just absolutely bloody brilliantly written.
The film is The Past, and it’s the first that Asghar Farhadi has shot outside of Iran. Farhadi is one of the rare Iranian film-makers who have managed to make films of artistic worth without falling foul of the authorities. “The restrictions and censorship in Iran are a bit like the British weather,” Farhadi said philosophically after A Separation won best film at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, on the way to winning the 2012 best foreign film Oscar. “One day it’s sunny, the next day it’s raining. You just have to hope you walk out into the sunshine.”
Friends of Farhadi’s, however, have failed to pack their umbrellas. Jafar Panahi was imprisoned and banned from making films for 20 years, though he defiantly smuggled out a semi-documentary on his incarceration, teasingly entitled This Is Not A Film, on a USB stick hidden in a cake.
Farhadi originally expressed solidarity with his colleague. When the regime then withdrew permission to film A Separation in 2010, he apologised in order to get the film back on track. As Time magazine noted when it named Farhadi one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Farhadi’s success at home could seem an act of “craven collaboration”. But, it went on, “exile or imprisonment is not a filmmaker’s only badge of honour. Another is speaking prickly truth in pictures, for all the world to see.”
Anyone hoping that filming in Paris would liberate Farhadi to speak his mind about the regime will be disappointed by The Past. Lovers of cinema will not. In the loosest possible sense, it’s a sequel to his Oscar-winner, in that it deals with the aftermath of a separation. An Iranian man returns to Paris five years on to sign the divorce papers so that his ex-wife (played by Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) can be with the new man in her life. But has she really let go of the old?
What starts as an acutely observed relationship drama becomes almost like a thriller in the second half, piling on revelation after revelation concerning an attempted suicide, twisting round tighter and tighter like a tourniquet over a wound…
To reveal too much would spoil your enjoyment. I loved it. Go.
* I would include 12 Years A Slave, but I saw that last year.