Secrets and lies of the Iranian kind make for rich, immersing viewing as they amass and tangle in the films of Asghar Farhadi. The writer-director’s divorce drama “A Separation” was a masterfully woven tapestry about gender divides and tradition-vs.-modernity struggles in his country, and “The Past” was a smaller but similarly textured story about a collapsing marriage. Earlier, Farhadi, made “About Elly,” a thriller, psychodrama, and (almost) yuppie tapestry. The 2009 film has finally arrived here, and it, too, is a triumph.
Suggesting an Iranian “Big Chill” crossed with a less existential “L’Avventura,” the story involves three youngish, modern, university-educated Tehran couples who, children in tow, arrive at a beach house for a getaway.
Joining them is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a sweet kindergarten teacher invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), a member of the group. Sepideh hopes Elly will hit it off with Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorced friend also aboard for the holiday.
After the characters enjoy some initial merriment, disaster occurs. Elly has vanished. As a frantic search transpires, questions emerge. Did Elly go back to Tehran? Did she leave because she was offended when the truth-stretching Sepideh told their elderly landlady that Elly and Ahmad were newlyweds? Did Elly drown?
Friendships shatter and fingers point in the ensuing chaos and uncertainty. Additional matchmaking actions on the part of Sepideh come to light, incensing Sepideh’s dangerously aggressive husband (Mani Haghighi).
Lies, meanwhile, multiply. The friends lie to Elly’s loved ones. They lie to each other. Knowing virtually nothing about the missing Elly, they begin to question her moral character. To cover up the mess they’ve created, they betray her.
With its slim plot and modest scope, the film is less substantial and deep than “A Separation” and less emotionally resonant than “The Past,” which benefited from the accessibility of its parent-child dynamics.
But nothing is remotely dull or lightweight in this movie. Farhadi has made a solid Iranian genre thriller and a powerful chamber tragedy embracing Iranian female independence.
Like fellow Iranians Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, Farhadi leaves blanks in the story so viewers can engage in putting the picture together. Potentially frustrating, the approach satisfies here.
He builds tension and charges the atmosphere with dread. A passage in which a shaky camera takes us into the menacing sea during a rescue attempt is as gripping as anything you’ll likely find in a big-studio picture.
Farahani, the standout among the cast, has a face Hollywood will soon be touting and can suffer on camera in ways the neorealists would have loved. In the role of the
devastated Sepideh, the actress superbly delivers the qualities we expect from an Asghar Farhadi character. She’s complicated, human and infinitely interesting.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Mani Haghighi, Taraneh Alidoosti
Written and directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes