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

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump