Faraway, so close: Bérénice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in The Past
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In Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, it’s only feelings that get hurt

The director of the Oscar-winning A Separation returns with a new family drama, this time set in a Parisian suburb.

The Past (12A)
dir: Asghar Farhadi 

Asghar Farhadi’s last film, the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), was a true original: this electrifying drama, about the fallout of an Iranian couple’s estrangement, was built like a whodunnit. Suspense sharpened the emotion and emotion deepened the suspense but neither aspect predominated. It felt like a new species of thriller.

The action in Farhadi’s latest picture, The Past, takes place not in Tehran but in Sevran, a Parisian suburb, but the format is unchanged. Once again, there is a separation at the heart of the film. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo) are having their divorce finalised in court the following morning but that still gives them plenty of time to lock horns over Marie’s current fiancé, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved in with her, bringing his surly young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Farhadi likes to show children witnessing adult imbroglios from the sidelines and there is no shortage of cuts to Fouad looking on gravely as his stepmother-to-be falls into an old, if not exactly easy, familiarity with this stranger. When that doleful expression darkens the child’s face, it’s like a thunderstorm ransacking paradise.

Marie’s 15-year-old daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is bristling for a different reason. She retains a fondness for her mother’s previous husband and has had enough of getting used to one stepfather only to have him replaced by another. Storming off after an argument with Marie, she pauses out of frame while the camera focuses on Ahmad’s upturned face. “Can I borrow some money?” she pipes up eventually. Farhadi is unbeatable at finding such oases of gentleness in the domestic hubbub, or hinting at the real arguments that lie behind the pantomime ones. When Fouad kicks over a pot of paint, we can see from both his insolence and Marie’s rage that this is no simple case of crying over spilled undercoat. And when Samir discovers that his son was party to another act of inconsequential mischief, his demand for an apology in triplicate seems related to some greater wrong. (It is.)

In every corner of this family there are issues and scar tissue. Fouad, for example, misses his old home, his old life. In this city of immigrants, not all of them legal, he is not the only one. “This isn’t my home. I’m not comfortable here,” says Ahmad, for whom each change made since his departure, even the moving of a bookshelf, represents a minor betrayal. “Me neither,” replies Lucie. But she has a plan to restore balance – and it’s already under way.

As in A Separation, clues, props and red herrings (a broken suitcase, an incriminating stain) litter the set as they would in any mystery. But it’s not only feelings that are being hurt. There is also a potential fatality – a suicide attempt that may not be as straightforward as it appears. While Farhadi’s eye for detail is as unsparing as ever, his style this time around has begun to look formulaic. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can easily become “Here we go again . . .” His approach to the assorted puzzles in the movie is summed up by those scenes in which tense exchanges (the first between Ahmad and a traffic warden, the second between him and Marie) are staged behind glass, out of our earshot. In short, the supposed intensity of the picture often rests on nothing more sophisticated than the temporary deferral of information.

When Hitchcock revealed a crucial twist halfway through Vertigo, he ensured that for the rest of time his film’s power would lie in more than just structural sleight of hand. For all the emotional honesty in The Past, its surprises seem mechanical once you realise that these narrative bombs are primed to explode at 20-minute intervals. The movie is too smart and assured for any disappointment to be ruinous. I still hope, however, that the zestiness of Farhadi’s film-making will not now be a thing of the past. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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