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For Your Consideration: 'About Elly'

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About Elly, directed by Asghar Farhadi
Early in About Elly, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, we see a group of friends on a car vacation. As they pass through a tunnel, they scream out the window, delighting in the echo of their voices. The cars pass by campsites filled with tents and picnickers, on their way to the ocean, a scene that could easily be imagined here or in most other countries. Only a few things set this group of people apart, like the women wearing headscarves and the fact that they bring along a samovar for the camp site to make tea, and a hookah for smoking. What starts out as a sort of Iranian Big Chill -- most of the friends know each other from their university days -- becomes more and more unsettled because one of the women has brought along a friend most of them don't know, her daughter's kindergarten teacher, whose name is Elly.

Farhadi actually made this film before A Separation, his hard-hitting account of what happens when modern life runs up against the Islamic courts in Iran. Released in Iran in 2009, but only now coming to the United States, the tone is more suspenseful, but the issues are related. No one would think that inviting a friend, even someone you do not know all that well, along for a weekend is a big deal, but in Iran questions might be raised about why this unmarried woman is staying in a ramshackle villa by the sea with people who are not her relations. Does her family know she is there? Is there another man who might already have a claim on her?

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Farhadi put together a fine ensemble of actors to carry this off. It was the screen debut of Peyman Moaadi, who went on to play the husband in A Separation, and he is the calm center of the group in many ways here. On the fault line is the beautiful Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who has not been entirely truthful about Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) and tries to pair her off with her friend Ahmad (sweet-face Shahab Hosseini, who was the nurse's hothead husband in A Separation), back from Germany and recently divorced. Farhadi's screenplay, on a story created with Azad Jafarian, is pithy and streamlined, raising tension as the vacation comes unraveled and friend turns on friend. One should not hope for tidy conclusions, though, and even after the film is done, Farhadi's opening shot remains wonderfully mysterious: a shaft of light is seen passing through a slot, in which something -- money? letters? -- is placed by the hands of unseen passersby, as if the camera is inside a postal box. In the end, Farhadi is only going to go so far in telling us about Elly.

This film opens today at the E Street Cinema.

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