It's tempting to suggest that if you have any interest in Iranian film in general, or in particular Asghar Farhadi — the director and writer of that shred-your-heart masterpiece A Separation — you should simply get yourself to Farhadi's About Elly without knowing a thing about it besides its title. It's also tempting to suggest that you haul with you one of those Americans who conceives of Iran as thoroughly hateful and homogenous, that West-hating land where everyone's a mullah. This superb, suspenseful film, completed in 2009, opens as a playful comedy of vacationing couples and awkward romance, one that might be set in the French countryside, but by the end it becomes a moral drama likely to corrode your certainties.
As Farhadi's ensemble arrives at an unkempt beach house on the Caspian Sea for an impulsive weekend away from Tehran, the married couples cluck and giggle at the two unattached members of their party, eager to see them fall for each other. You might be surprised at the breezy way those two — divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a handsome expat returned home, and the shyly circumspect Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), mostly unacquainted with the group — get passed off as newlyweds to the family that rents out the property. Beneath her hijab, Elly sometimes beams at this impropriety, sometimes looks alarmed, and mostly pretends not to notice. That's her response, too, when the marrieds, turned on at the thought of matchmaking, transparently contrive to pair these two off — and noisily razz Ahmad about his chances the second she steps away.
Few filmmakers can match Farhadi's touch with ensembles. In a frame packed with faces, he suggests, with little fuss, the relationships that tie and tug his cast members; his characters' bustling is meticulously staged, pregnant with meaning, yet never appears rehearsed. His films simply seem to observe people at the moments they are most fully and unknowingly themselves.
You may be struck by the familiarity of the opening scenes. The couples play charades, Elly a little shyly, especially the way Ahmad's looking at her. The men sit outside for a smoke while the women clean up. Nobody can get a signal on their cell phones. Two of the husbands annoy/delight everyone else with comic singing and dancing, routines that Desert Dancer — in theaters now — reminds us are technically forbidden. Meanwhile, a warmth blooms between Ahmad and Elly, even as she has to be persuaded by the other women to stick around for the full weekend. We see her on the beach, keeping an eye on the pair of children accompanying the vacationers but also getting caught up in the pleasure of kite-flying. Farhadi follows her face as she holds the string, shows us her worries — about what, we don't know — and then yields a flash of peacefulness and, finally, at last, her laughter.
And then there's a scream, and the movie becomes something else entirely, something more in line with L'Avventura than a country farce. All that casual living that might have surprised us earlier — in Iran, you can just lie that you're married when renting a room? — is, for the rest of the film, subjected to rigorous examination. You know the white lies and misunderstandings that underpin our romantic comedies? In About Elly, as in Farhadi's homeland, those might be high moral crimes or the seeds of tragedy. The film grows more frightening and compelling as it goes, reminding us that the free-spirited universality of its early scenes is still too often rare and dangerous; what lies, it asks, does such a society force its people to tell? What social roles must even the marginally religious perform? About Elly doesn't fully measure up to 2011's A Separation, but in its craft and wisdom and devastating inquiries, it, too, is essential.