‘About Elly’
Asghar Farhadi
Stars: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

Four years ago, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi had a major international breakthrough with “A Separation,” a scarily assured, masterfully escalating drama that acquired not unearned comparisons to Ibsen and Chekhov. But he could have achieved massive success a bit earlier. Thanks to pesky distribution issues, “About Elly,” the film Farhadi made right before, arrives in America six years after its premiere. (It did net Farhadi the Best Director prize at the Berlinale, so it’s not like it’s some obscurity.) If it can be a touch too narratively byzantine and heavy-handed, it’s still a quietly devastating throwback to the classics of drama — a form that has largely disappeared from the cinema landscape.

Not that Farhadi’s films are only about actors, words and themes. They could only function as films and, arguably even more than “A Separation” and his follow-up, “The Past,” “About Elly” knows how to use direction, and especially misdirection, in masterful ways. Indeed, the first 40 minutes are a completely different film than the heavy drama that follows: a quasi-comic, Altmanesque hangout film that observes the carefree trip a group of longtime, middle class friends — three couples, plus two single stragglers — take from Tehran to a rundown Caspian Sea beach house. There’s no sign from the dizzying intermingling that tragedy will soon strike. When it does it happens with a red herring: first one of the families’ children will nearly drown; once he’s rescued they wonder what happened to the adult tasked with looking after him: Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), the single school teacher invited along to perhaps mate with recent divorcee and Berlin ex-pat Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini).

There are probably one or two too many twists in the search for Elly, whom no one knew but Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who keeps parts of this stranger’s life a secret from the rest. But the investigation winds up revealing just as much about our protagonists, and Iranian society, as it does about Elly. One of the more disarming aspects of the film, at least for Western viewers, is how recognizably middle class, even “Western,” they seem. (Hosseini, who played the hotheaded fundamentalist husband in “A Separation,” is here scruffily charming, coming off like the Persian Mark Duplass.) Once Elly vanishes, the men start reverting to unconscious societal norms borne out of life under a restrictive regime. One of the husbands even winds up losing his tempter and beating Sepideh. When he catches himself he doesn’t apologize but puts the blame on her (“She got me to raise my hand at her!”). Farhadi is an Iranian filmmaker who isn’t censored (or, like Jafar Panahi, put under house arrest), but that doesn’t mean his films aren’t critical of his homeland. He just buries his charges in genre, making films that thrill both as old school drama and as cinema.

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