TORONTO -- Poor Gael Garcia Bernal. Being a real-world sex object is burden enough, without having to deal with the string of fictional obsessive lovers in The Past, a film that finds it hard to imagine a fully sane female. Sex appeal and the name of director Hector Babenco may draw some to the art house, but with mixed critical response the crowd will likely be modest.
Adapting a novel by Argentinean writer Alan Pauls, the script sees through the eyes of a man whose flow from relationship to relationship is more seamless than decorum would dictate. At the story's beginning, Rimini is leaving Sofia, his wife of 12 years. The break (his idea, evidently) is amicable, with Sofia even finding him a great new apartment. As they finish establishing separate residences, all Sofia asks (beyond a continuing friendship) is that Rimini come over to sort through the couple's old snapshots to decide which memories he wants to keep.
A different kind of photograph immediately intrudes: A fashion shoot on the street, in which model Vera poses in lingerie, catches his eye, and soon they're meeting at a disco. Despite Vera's bizarre, first-date outburst of jealousy, and her proprietary attitude in dates to come -- not very convincingly drawn by either the script or actress Moro Anghileri -- he soon makes her his second wife.
Then there's Carmen, an old schoolmate who becomes Rimini's colleague as he segues from authoring Spanish subtitles for old movies to providing in-person translation for academic and business conferences. He develops a crush on her, and after a bit of presto-changeo melodrama, she's bride No. 3.
During all of this, first wife Sofia hangs frighteningly on the periphery, threatening to become Glenn Close. As it turns out, she has launched a sad little club, inspired by Truffaut's film The Story of Adele H., for women clinging to the hope of reuniting with men who have spurned them. When not urging lonely women to pursue their delusions, she's having psychotic episodes that conveniently derail Rimini's relationships.
Babenco could have helped viewers digest all this by providing some filmic cues to the passage of time. Bernal's hairstyle changes slightly a time or two, but if the screenplay didn't have the occasional line like "I'm his wife," we'd think most of this story happened over the course of a few weeks, not years.
Beyond that lies the hard to accept romantic dynamic of the film. Rimini is a cipher, showing so little self-direction in his love life that it's difficult to hold him accountable for callousness. He's passive in ways that make no sense, and takes action -- as when he throws a violent tantrum at the end of a casual fling -- when the least is at stake. The film's final act is unbelievable, even if we ascribe hidden motivations to uncharacteristic behavior.
It may be that the script, which keeps bringing up those boxes of old pictures, just wants to convince us that our histories have a stronger hold on us than we think. Here, that pull looks less like irresistible gravity and more like an unpaid library fine -- albeit one enforced by an awfully motivated librarian.
K&S Films / HB Filmes
Director: Hector Babenco
Writers: Marta Goes, Hector Babenco
Based on the novel by Alan Pauls
Producers: Oscar Kramer, Hugo Sigman, Hector Babenco
Executive producers: Paula Zyngierman, Pola Zito, Andrea Ramalho
Director of photography: Ricardo Della Rosa
Production designer: Sebastian Orgambide
Music: Ivan Wyszogrod
Costume designer: Julio Suarez
Editor: Gustavo Giani
Rimini: Gael Garcia Bernal
Sofia: Analia Couceyro
Vera: Moro Anghileri
Carmen: Ana Celentano
Nancy: Mimi Ardu
Running time -- 112 minutes
No MPAA rating