In 2012, the Iranian drama "A Separation" won an Oscar for best foreign language film. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, the movie focused on a middle-class Tehran couple struggling through divorce in a country wavering between religious traditions and secular norms. For most American moviegoers, it was probably a tough sell.
If you missed that one, Farhadi returns with "The Past," which may be a better introduction to a remarkable filmmaker. Though set in Paris and starring an international cast, "The Past" is an accessible film that would seem to translate into any language. It's a soap opera driven by a mystery. What makes it riveting are terrific performances and the storytelling of Farhadi, who scatters his clues like bread crumbs until you're eating out of his hand.
A cast member familiar to Americans will be Bérénice Bejo, of "The Artist," playing Marie, a single mother holding together a disjointed family. Her husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), has returned from Tehran to grant a divorce. It's rough for the children, who love Ahmad, though we slowly realize they aren't his. One, angry little Fouad (Elyes Aguis), isn't even Marie's: He belongs to her boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim); therein lies a scandal. Samir is married and, according to Marie's teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), his wife is in a coma. Could Marie, the mistress, be to blame?
If it sounds complicated, you'll be amazed at how closely you follow it. Secrets are spilled, then debunked, then re-verified, sometimes within seconds. Ahmad is our guide, staying calm while animosities and accusations explode around him. "Don't get sucked back into this," says a friend, but Ahmad won't quit. It isn't the truth he wants, but peace. It eventually becomes clear Ahmad may not get his answers. That only deepens the mystery.
PLOT An Iranian man revisiting his estranged French family discovers a troubling secret.
RATING PG-13 (mature themes)
CAST Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet
BOTTOM LINE This French film from Iran's Asghar Farhadi is a riveting mystery with terrific performances and deft storytelling. It's a universal movie that would work brilliantly in any language. (In French with English subtitles)