It’s an irony of the international film scene that arguably the greatest contemporary creator of adult psychological dramas in the classic Hollywood mold comes from a country that views America’s movie business and everything associated with it as the unredeemed spawn of the Great Satan.
That would be the gifted Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film, “A Separation,” was the widely acclaimed winner of the Oscar for foreign-language film.
“About Elly” is not a new film from Farhadi. In fact, it’s been five years since it won him the Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. Rights issues have kept it from U.S. release until now, but this terrific ensemble piece has lost none of its power, its impressive ability to put viewers in an emotional vise and keep them there.
Like “A Separation,” “About Elly” is a picture of life in a sector of Iranian society we don’t often see. We are in the realm of the educated middle class, where women wear fashionable jeans along with their hijabs and screaming imprecations against imperialists has given way to renting vacation villas on the Caspian Sea.
“About Elly” involves its players, young professionals who have been friends since university, in a compelling interpersonal story that manages to be specifically Iranian and broadly universal. It examines the way the small evasions of truth that are the well-intentioned currency of everyday life play out in devastating ways when situations get unexpectedly extreme.
The film opens with eight adults and three children headed for a holiday weekend at the beach. Six of the grown-ups are couples, and one of the unattached adults is everyone’s friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), newly divorced and visiting from his home in Germany. The eighth person, added to the group at the last minute, is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti).
The idea of bringing demure kindergarten teacher Elly along with an eye toward fixing her up with Ahmad came from the group’s ringleader, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani, who played Pharaoh’s wife in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”).
Lively, energetic and married to the grumpy Amir (Mani Haghighi), Sepideh doesn’t let cold reality stand in the way of her plans. When finding a place to stay proves problematic, Sepideh tells the landlady that Ahmad and Elly, who’ve barely met, are newlyweds, a fib that allows the group to stay in a half-built seaside villa where proximity to the waves delights the children.
Farhadi initially throws us cold into the midst of this lively crowd, in effect mimicking Elly’s situation. Gradually, as we watch them unpack, clean the house and engage in an evening game of charades, we sort out who everyone is, just in time for the intensity that the next day will bring.
As soon as breakfast is over, with the men occupied playing volleyball, Elly, who’s seemed slightly nervous and troubled from the start, tells Sepideh she must return to Tehran immediately. In her usual assertive way, Sepideh says it’s just not possible and refuses point-blank to give Elly the ride into town to catch a bus she desperately wants.
Frustrated, Elly ends up flying a kite with some of the children, resulting in a scene that showcases Farhadi’s cinematic virtuosity. Rather than cutting back and forth from the kite to Elly in the standard manner, the director shows us nothing but Elly desperately running back and forth, rushing from one side of the frame to the other, turning a situation that is usually a metaphor for freedom into a visual symbol of the character’s trapped state of mind.
Abruptly, not once but several times, “About Elly” changes tone as a rolling series of crises amplify the seaside tension exponentially. A key element is the disappearance of Elly, who is all of a sudden nowhere to be found.
Troubled and worried by her absence, in the dark about where she went and why she is gone and fearing the worst, the vacationers second guess themselves and one another about what has happened and who is at fault, a process that leads to the exposure of previously unspoken rifts and animosities.
Farhadi has written a first-rate script, enabling intricate plotting to intertwine with well-defined characters, and “About Elly” shows him at ease with the wide variety of situations his writing explores. Emotional intensity is Farhadi’s métier, and to see “About Elly” is to revel in his skill.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles