Dir. Asghar Farhadi
When we first meet the estranged couple Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) they are in a Paris airport, on opposite sides of thick glass partition separating new arrivals from the people there to meet them. Ahmad is returning to the city after mysteriously cutting out on Marie and her two children four years ago to return to Tehran, so the overt symbolism of the two of them trying to communicate silently through a thick wall of impenetrable, sound-proof glass is more than telling. In fact, there are many such loaded moments in Asghar Farhadi’s scintillating follow-up to the brilliant A Separation. In that film, a couple was forced to decide between trying to appease one another or splitting up and following their own necessary paths. This film considers the aftermath of such a split, which in this case has left an enormous amount of complication in its wake.
Ahmad has finally returned on behest of Marie, who wants him to sign their divorce papers in person, and, at the same time speak with his former stepdaughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), a fiery teenager seemingly headed out of her mother’s fragile control. Part of Lucie’s anger, it turns out, is directed at Marie’s boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has moved into their house with his young son (Elyes Aguis), even as his wife lies in a coma in a Paris hospital. Lucie, it turns out, is convinced Samir’s wife attempted to commit suicide because of her mother’s affair with her husband.
Into this den of drama, Ahmad is left just trying to do right by everyone. Put into an incredibly awkward situation by Marie, who never bothered to tell him she was now living with someone else, he struggles to stay out of everyone’s way. Speaking soothingly, cooking authentic Iranian food, he wants to close out his time with Marie and her children in as civilized and caring a manner as possible under the circumstances, but the twisted family dynamics keep threatening to embroil him even as he does his best to clear the air for everyone else.
Much as he did in his previous film, Farhadi remains the most skilled sort of narrative artist, one who refuses to take sides with his characters: Everyone is eventually given the same even-handed treatment, even with someone such as Samir, who we are bound to loathe at first, if for no other reason that we pull so much for the soft-spoken Ahmad. However, Farhadi is far too skilled to leave us with such an obvious villain: What first appears to be cold bluster and unsympathetic harshness with his son melts into something else altogether in a single moment outside a subway train in Paris, and with it, our sympathies begin to collide in complicated ways. Everyone can partake in some of the guilt, but they also can make a strong case for their point of view on the matter.
As noted earlier, Farhadi also enjoys working in lengthy, satisfying metaphor. The house the family shares is a shabby mess when Ahmad first arrives, in constant disrepair, desperately needing the new coat of paint the couple are haphazardly slapping up on the walls, even as the fumes cause Samir’s sensitive eyes to swell up and tear. The sinks get clogged, the yard is unfinished and loaded with junk, and the space is too small by half, but over the course of things, it begins to look more and more homey. During the course of things, Samir and Marie begin to remake it into something they can comfortably share together.
Farhadi’s plots, which he describes as tiny mysteries, are also clever, intricate things, built in small moments and telling gestures, but able to withstand a thousand pressures, like an erector set dipped in titanium, as sound and well-built as a Roman aqueduct. One detail leads to a character’s understanding of something, which, in turn, leads to further questions until, at last, the whole apparatus is revealed by the end.
His frame is filled with the stuff of life, sustaining a threadbare lived-in quality — from the car windshield that remains fogged over even after a character wipes it with his hand, to the claustrophobic, chemical confines of Samir’s dry-cleaning shop — that permeates through his characters and works in subtle ways to render everything imminently believable and as natural as a documentary-style home movie — just, in Mahmoud Kalari, with a much better cinematographer.
Not a shot is wasted, not a dramatic moment unearned, the film is a triumph of art, even as what it points to is nothing less than the insurmountable human condition, our collective method of calibrating our pain and longing and guilt to survive another day.
The title is also more than a simple lamentation for things gone by: The film deals with the very complex way in which we, by concise act or circumstance, are forced to live with our tragically selective memories, shutting out those things that would topple us over if their full weight were placed on our shoulders. In Farhadi’s work, answers are always there in front of us, waiting for those moments we are finally able to see them clearly enough as to be recognizable.