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The Past

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Cert 12A, 130 mins

The Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi's The Past is about a marriage ending, a new relationship emerging, and scratching together a living in lower middle class Paris. It's also about colouring pencils, parenting, sorrow, and the usefulness of a cigarette.

Its context is about as small as you can get - many of the scenes are just two people in a room talking. There is no establishing shot of the Paris we know, the movie Paris, for The Past does not want to be mistaken for that kind of Paris film. While its preoccupations are with matters of the heart, it's not magical romance we're after here. It's the truth that life must inevitably include the making and breaking of faith with one another before we can learn how to make it a little better next time; that love between human beings necessitates danger - for intimacy has to allow for shadows as well as light; and eventually that people do hurt each other, sometimes terribly, often unconsciously or certainly without the motive to do harm. And amidst all this, there is the possibility of forgiveness - not of the kind that would require a shot of the Eiffel Tower, a garish accordion player, and a moonlit sky. No, Farhadi's film, like his earlier A Separation, which also dealt with the conclusion of a marriage, is entirely unsentimental. But that doesn't mean it is not full to the brim with hope and love.

The experience of 'big' cinema so often achieves the reverse of what its pretending - I exit something like Transformers knowing that the director Michael Bay wanted to overawe me, but that what unfolded felt more like being beaten up by Godzilla wielding the Golden Gate Bridge in his right claw while eating a shipping container full of saccharine with his left. 'Big' cinema so often has a tiny impact. Compare the two key films at this year's Oscars: 12 Years a Slave is a psychological tour de force, and Gravity provides enormous pleasure from spectacle. But the longer term impact, I would suspect, is that 12 Years will be remembered as changing the way race and history are investigated in mainstream cinema, while Gravity will simply be a blueprint for new technical tools to tell the same kinds of stories we're already used to.

The Past deserves mention in the same breath as both, for each is about people trying to survive in appallingly difficult circumstances. It's the smallness of Sandra Bullock's teary echo of the baying of wolves she can hear on the radio, and the defiance of Chiwetel Ejiofor's summoning of his last drops of fortitude singing 'Roll Jordan Roll', that remind me of Farhadi's closely observed trains of thought - his protagonist Bérénice Bejo smiling and waving at the man who broke her heart, her stepson enjoying the colouring pencils with which he had previously been unimpressed, her current partner trying to amend for words spoken in anger by calling across a busy street, the ex-husband offering to explain and apologize, but being met with a request for silence. Because sometimes silence is better than words, and sometimes just noticing what's happening is better than being confronted by it - as if sorrow and love were only special effects. When it comes to matters of the soul, The Past is just about as big a film as they come.