If you loved Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, you'll merely like his new film, The Past. Glib, yes, but accurate. No doubt it's tough to follow up a breakout as rich and assured and engaging as the Iranian writer/director's big 2012 domestic splash, but coming back with such a similar film all but assures a fraught comparison.
As with A Separation, there's a feuding couple at the center of The Past. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) have been separated for years, but he's finally returning to Paris from Tehran to sign their divorce papers. Once he arrives, he learns why she's pressing him to make it official now: She's taken up with a brooding younger man, Samir (A Prophet's Tahar Rahim), and plans a new life with him and their blended family—her daughters Lucie and Léa (Pauline Burley and Jeanne Jestin, respectively) and his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis).
And as with A Separation, there is something of a mystery. (Mild spoilers follow—if you want to preserve a pristine viewing experience, skip to the next paragraph.) Samir isn't yet free to marry, either. His wife lies in a hospital bed, vegetative but still alive. As with A Separation, Farhadi leaks bits of key information in a slow drip. He establishes the questions—what are the parental relationships between the various children and the adult characters? Why does Marie seem so nervous, more than having her ex back in the house might warrant? Why is Samir's wife in a coma? Why is Lucie so uncomfortable around her future stepfather?—before you even realize that you're wondering, and he gradually, patiently reveals at least some of the answers.
Like its predecessor, The Past displays the director's devastating skill at domestic drama, played for both maximum impact and infinitesimal subtlety. Ahmad and Marie are clearly happy to see each other at the airport, but by the time they're halfway home in the car, their conversation unearths a convincing display of the kind of bickering and swipes long-term intimates can fall into as easily as the rhythm of breathing. Over the course of the film, their past love and their kind hearts present themselves as clearly as their incompatibility. A scene between Samir and Fouad on the Metro simmers with the powerful resentment of a child feeling ignored and shuffled around and the frustration of a parent under stress, toggling between anger and tenderness.
Likewise, as in A Separation, Farhadi's visual storytelling power belies the cozy settings. His repeated return to the use of mirrors, screens and scrims, and scenes observed through a window or a door underpins the story's trove of secrets guarded and revealed. Small wordless moments—the discomfort of antagonists sharing a teapot at breakfast, the way a couple holds hands and who lets go first—reverberate beyond their modest proportions. That said, shooting a number of dialogue scenes on the far side of a pane of glass, showing you the interaction but silencing the content, comes across a bit too on the nose.
Using that gambit in the opening sequence, in fact, is where The Past starts to suffer in comparison to its predecessor. A Separation's competing agendas, minor mysteries, emotional clashes, jaw-dropping revelations, and sad turning points clicked together like the tumblers of an intricate lock until the whole thing turned together, creating a draining gut-punch of a film. The Past, for all its skill and occasional power, lacks that precision. Twists pile up and tangle, and some dead end. Red herrings dot the script. And as the number of similarities between the films multiply, The Past can't help but suffer in comparison. There's an argument to be made that Farhadi is extending the story he told last time around—a couple reuniting after a separation—but the eminently relatable motives and emotions of each character in A Separation go missing here, replaced by more inchoate, and ineffective, characters and performances, and moments that verge on melodrama.
All that said, The Past may disappoint, but it doesn't fail. Farhadi remains a skilled director, and the nuanced exploration of family bonds and tensions here outstrips the rudimentary depictions often found in typical Hollywood family dramas. The central theme he explores here suffuses every reel. A Separation concerned itself with the ways in which decisions and chance moments change lives. The Past makes clear that sometimes those decisions, those moments, and their effects never really release their grip.