February 13, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'The Past' captivates and compels as part mystery, part dysfunction tale

Tahar Rahim and Bérénice Bejo are both waiting for their previous marriages to end in 'The Past.' (Carole Bethuel / Sony Pictures Classics)

The Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has an uncanny ability to transform family dysfunction into mystery, thereby revealing something about the human soul.

He did it with his Oscar-nominated 2011 film “A Separation” and he’s done it again with the mesmerizing and surprising “The Past.” At some crucial point, he moves beyond well-made character study, and questions follow questions down a rabbit hole.

“The Past” begins with Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning to Paris so he can divorce Marie (Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”), a woman he left four years earlier. He also left behind Marie’s daughters from a previous marriage, Lucie (Pauline Burlet) and Lea (Jeanne Jestin), both of whom are still attached to Ahmad.

When Marie invites Ahmad to stay at her house and catch up with the girls, he discovers that Marie is living with Samir (Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet”) and Samir’s young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Not only that, Marie is pregnant with Samir’s child and they plan to marry.

Their wedding day is somewhat in question, though, since Samir is already married to Fouad’s mother, a woman who is in a coma after trying to kill herself.

Ahmad also discovers the teenage Lucie is troubled and rarely comes home. Even though he’s in the process of separating himself from this family, Marie asks Ahmad to talk to Lucie and find out what’s wrong. And Samir begins to resent Ahmad’s continued presence, even while realizing Marie is asking Ahmad for a favor.

Right there you’ve got more than enough for a film about a messed-up family. But Farhadi takes things much further, as the reason Lucie is in emotional tumult turns out to be rooted in Samir’s wife’s suicide attempt. And as an intricate tale of deceit and betrayal unfolds, it’s obvious that everything in the present is inexorably tied to the past.

The wonder isn’t merely that Farhadi can conceive of such intricate stories and fill them with real flesh-and-blood characters, it’s that he never lets the film get lost in its complications. Beyond that, all the twists and turns are perfectly believable even if often astounding.

He also has a special gift with actors. Bejo, so adorable in “The Artist,” is mostly a controlled train wreck here, but when she comes off the tracks, she comes off big. Mosaffa is a well-tuned mix of patience and alarm, and Rahim gives Samir a weary sadness.

But perhaps the most appealing performance comes from Burlet, a young ringer for Marion Cotillard (she even played the 10-year-old version of Cotillard in “La Vie en Rose”), who gives the film its confused, bedeviled, innocent-evil center. This young lady will be a star.

Farhadi has pulled off the dysfunctional family mystery trick twice now, brilliantly, and perhaps three times in a row would be too much. But it’s doubtful he will leave behind the fertile ground of family ties and modern messiness. He sees so much there.

'The Past'

GRADE: A

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language

Running time: 130 minutes

“The Past” (PG-13) An Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris to divorce his wife (Berenice Bejo) but ends up entangled in her dysfunctional family in this fascinating film from the brilliant Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”). (130 minutes) GRADE: A

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Pauline Burlet, a young ringer for Marion Cotillard, gives the film its ... (Carole Bethuel / Sony Pictures Classics)