A strange, but exhilarating sensation: watching an Iranian filmmaker's movie taking place in Paris and thinking of the greatest Norwegian playwright of them all.
A masterpiece to treasure, should be a shoe-in for the next foreign-language Oscar, to follow his 2011 "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi's 2013 "The Past" has a limited commercial release today.
Farhadi's special ability to tell engrossing, memorable stories brings to mind Ibsen's way of revealing secrets - to the characters about each other and to the audience. Often the viewer is ahead of Farhadi's complex, but occasionally clueless characters... only to be surprised later as layers of (Peer Gynt's) onion are peeled back.
Particularly Ibsenian moments occur when somebody in the film is saying something to another character that we in the audience understand differently, often deeper. It channels the scene of Dr. Rank in "A Doll's House" saying goodbye to Nora, sounding routine to her, who doesn't know what we do, that he is terminally ill, and the farewell is forever.
"The Past" opens at the airport where Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to Paris from Tehran, complying with the request of his estranged French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, of "The Artist," but nothing like the character she played there). He left her four years before and now that she is planning to marry her boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim), she wants to get a divorce.
Secrets and mysteries abound and get more intense, suspenseful, even painful, but Ashfar and his wonderful cast make it all clear and understandable, at least on the surface.
Mosaffa and Rahim turn in splendidly believable performances, but it's Bejo's heroically unsympathetic portrayal of a woman in doubt and crisis which may stay with the audiences the longest. Right up with it is Pauline Burlet as Lucie, Marie's daughter from a previous marriage - morose, unmanageable, but in no way a "typical teenager"; she takes center stage later in scenes that prompt sharp intakes of breath from the audience.
Another connection with Ibsen - and all great artists - is Farhadi's ability to compel audiences to care about everybody in his films, but without sentimentality or "making nice." These people are real and alive, on the screen and in our memory.