As he demonstrated in his Oscar-winning "A Separation," Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has a passion for drama and a gift for the realistic depiction of intense emotional situations. He takes full advantage of that latter talent in his new film, "The Past."

Because it is set in France, not Iran, "The Past" does not have the religious/political overlay that made "A Separation" so remarkable that it won the best foreign language Oscar. But it's quite potent on its own terms.

"The Past" tells the story of an Iranian man whose return to France to give his wife the divorce she wants has devastating consequences. Part family melodrama, the film is also an intricate interpersonal puzzle in which the more certain people are that they know the truth, the more likely they are to be mistaken. The story is so rife with half-truths, evasions, suspicions, assumptions, accusations and misunderstandings that it could have been called "Secrets & Lies."

Looking more fragile and delicate than she did as the ebullient Peppy in "The Artist," Bérénice Bejo is so convincing as Marie -- a woman trying to maintain an equilibrium in her life -- that she took the actress prize at Cannes for her performance.

It has been four years since Marie has seen her husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), and filmmaker Farhadi shows them at an airport near Paris, where the two can see each other through the glass, but can't hear each other speaking -- a wonderful metaphor for the state of their relationship.

Though Ahmad has come at Marie's request, that doesn't mean the two are fated to get along. Ahmad turns out to have been Marie's second husband. She has two daughters by her first, and Ahmad clearly was an essential father figure to both, especially Lucie, the oldest, while he and Marie were together. Now, Marie tells him, she and 16-year-old Lucie (the luminous Belgian actress Pauline Burlet) are at each other's throats. Can Ahmad talk to her and see what the trouble is?

Ahmad agrees, but it is one of the conceits of "The Past" that, though he is in general a rational figure and a calming influence, his presence becomes an unwitting catalyst that causes all hell to break loose.

One of the things Marie doesn't tell Ahmad, at least at first, is that the reason she wants a divorce now is that she is in a serious relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), who has personal crises of his own to deal with. As the secrets that almost everyone is hiding come to light, Farhadi adds a degree of honesty and complexity to a plot that might seem artificial in other hands.

'The Past'

* * *

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material and brief strong language)
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, Tahar Rahim
Writer/director: Asghar Farhadi
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes