The Past gets the "best film I've seen in a while" award. I think it's a great film and every bit as good as Asghar Farhadi's previous masterpiece, A Separation.
Asghar Farhadi is intimately concerned with the drama of everyday life, of mothers and fathers and daughters and sons. No other film I can think of has such well-developed characters. There wasn't a point in the entire film where I didn't feel these characters were real. To watch The Past is to exercise our empathy. We know where each character is coming from and never feel that one character is more good or bad, more right or wrong, than the next. This is what A Separation did equally masterfully. The drama is so enticing as our empathy is fully engaged that I wondered throughout the film why these films aren't abundant in even mainstream cinema. I suppose that's not possible, but I think anyone could see this film and love it, even have their lives benefit from it.
The Past begins in the middle and ends in the middle. The story is not over when we leave and it has not just begun when we enter. There is an undercurrent throughout the film where family truth hides. This truth is revealed sometimes to twist the plot and other times it seeps out ever so slightly in the actor's expressions. Farhadi is a master of the screenplay and the story feels so well calculated because I think he understands that it's not about what is being said but what's not being said.
The film is carried by performance. Performances are remarkable all around, including and especially the young actors. They make the film worth repeat viewings. The camerawork almost never speaks for itself but for the actors. Farhadi is dedicated to performance and showing drama and turmoil through the actor's face, a very natural style of filmmaking but also a unique one because it's almost never done so well or felt so precise. We notice that they live in a real home with clutter and limited space. This is as far from studio filmmaking as you can get.
Farhadi turns this great film into a greater film in the third act where he asks the audience to reflect on their own conflicts with their past. He's probably interested in your drama as much as he is the characters' on screen. Even though the story doesn't end, we are left with more than enough to reflect upon and we're never kept from the story by artistic pretense. It's one of 2013's best, and that's saying a lot.
I probably have to explain myself giving this film 3.5/5, but I'll start with the positive, and there is certainly a lot appreciate here. This is a very different film for Miyazaki because unlike most of his other films this one didn't have to be animated. That's debatable, but I'm sure others will agree. It is an epic period drama and a romance above all else although it is blended with fantasies. Like Miyazaki's other films, this one contains scenes of beauty, nostalgia, and romance not corrupted by on screen kissing. It's deep and meaningful like a poem. The way meaning is incorporated into the film is similar to other epics incorporate meaning. A prophecy recurs throughout the character's journey that plays a deterministic power in his life. This is so in Lawrence of Arabia, where the prophecy is "it is written," and the film is about the character's resistance to the prophecy.
Unfortunately, The Wind Rises was no Lawrence of Arabia, and here's why: Jiro doesn't resist his fate. We barely see his struggle, however compelling it is, and Jiro's revelation is either minimal or absent altogether. Only after watching the film I realized that Jiro is probably one of the worst characters I've seen on screen. This is because he has no flaws whatsoever. Right from the beginning he's the most likable guy ever, ambitious, a sweetheart, kind, heroic and, dare I say, perfect. He has no faults to counter any of those. If he could just be ambitious but idealistic, romantic but self-centered, the story would have worked better. As you may be able to guess, Jiro is mostly a passive character, being sent from place to place without resistance and falling in love without doubt, very unlike Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. So when the prophecy is fulfilled in the end, this wasn't a revelation for Jiro or me, I sort of said, "well, yeah, haven't we known that?" The ending does hold a lot of power and is moving but it's lacking because the protagonist doesn't witness his own climax with the same emotion that the film evokes.
I think Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and I was happy to see him do a work outside his usual genre, so this one was a disappointment but still a good disappointment.
Note: Sort-of-spoilers to follow: Her is challenging and at times difficult to watch as love is balanced with excitement, uncertainties and anxiety, feelings most members of its audience are well acquainted with. It highlights the characters' flaws and insecurities, characters whose intricacies are developed primarily through strong performances where silence and pauses deepen the film more so than dialogue, which speaks for how strong the dialogue itself is, as the information excluded is equally important. The film feels so authentic that we wonder why romantic films like this are so rare. I take it that Samantha is equally as human as Theodore with the exception that she's not human. This is hard to explain. She's able to encapsulate all of the emotions that define a human but discovers herself to be different and capable of more things. Samantha struggles to meet the needs of other humans and be just like one herself, but she discovers that she is not the same but different. This conflict is entirely relatable but also exclusive to Samantha, who discovers that she rests on a higher plane of existence and belongs with the other OS's. Theodore's struggle parallels this and his resolution, as he looks at the city from a higher viewpoint, lies in finding like humans to bond and grow with. Technology is more of a device for humanism than it is for the opposite as we commonly see in other sci-fi films. Relationships are stepping stones we experience to help us grow and discover who we are, where we fail, and what we want. In discovering these things we change and evolve to the point where our relationship may not satisfy our needs as they once were. Her helps us realize that we are growing no matter which side of the breakup we're on, and despite the never-ending and always difficult love/loss pattern, we come to embrace the experience.
There were points in Gloria when I felt close to the character and I felt I was on board with her, and other points where I felt kept at a distance from discovering her true colors. It's rare, however, to take such a deep journey in the protagonist's life, especially one who I can't really relate with and one who hasn't been featured in other films. I was curious. Gloria is a different film, one where we're not told what to think about our protagonist. It's frustrating in this way because we have the expectation that we're supposed to feel a certain way about the character, or realize what exactly is going on with the protagonist, one who seems full of confidence but is also prone to drinking and regressing into the past (so I assume). We should be able to get the message the director is trying to convey, and I consider it a fault that our opinions are allowed to differ so significantly. A lack of explicit information often works to an advantage, and, while I may be contradicting myself, I don't think this film is an exception. That's both what the film does well and where it's frustrating. Is she liberated in the ending, or is she regressing? What is it that leads her on the path of self-destruction, and is this resolved in the end? To my disappointment, I was unable to answer those questions. It's an intriguing take on a narrative to have a protagonist so tethered to the core but to introduce her without explicitly revealing anything about her. I found myself bothered by the same thing when I watched Blue is the Warmest Color, and I couldn't know what the protagonist was thinking despite the camera insisting that I look deep into her. Even though I didn't feel the ending paid off, I can understand how it's a rewarding watch, so I would recommend it.