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‘The Past’ melancholy, brilliant

What’s gone before is never really lost, but lingers in the air — or maybe only in the mind — like perfume, or its memory.

That, at any rate, is the picture of personal history painted by “The Past,” the achingly melancholic follow-up to “A Separation” by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi.

True to its title, the past shows up, quite literally, in the film’s first few minutes, as a French woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), awaits the arrival of her estranged Iranian husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), in an airport. When they first spot each other, it is through soundproof glass, a lovely and effective metaphor for the paradox of access and intangibility that characterizes many acts of remembrance.

They’re not getting back together. It’s been years since Ahmad left France and his wife for his homeland, and the only reason he’s there now is to sign off on the divorce that Marie has, at long last, initiated. Marie, who has a little girl, Léa (Jeanne Jestin), and a teenage daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), from a relationship that predates Ahmad, has met a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim), who’s ready to move in with her.

Unfortunately Samir, as we discover in a story that peels itself, slowly, like an onion — and with just as many tears — also has a wife in a coma.

That particular circumstance is the point around which “The Past” circles, uncovering its narrative clues like a mystery thriller. Structurally, Farhadi’s screenplay sets up the kind of secrets, denials and shocking revelations that one would expect from a whodunit.

Tonally, however, it’s pure relationship drama. “The Past” may have a gripping plot, but it’s more interested in the crackling, complex dynamics between Marie and her soon-to-be ex; between Ahmad and Samir; between Lucie and her mother; and between Samir and his young son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who’s consumed by a mysterious, burning resentment.

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