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Tension in Tehran: About Elly 

Wednesday, May 20 2015
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Made before his Oscar-winner A Separation but released here only now thanks to the latter's success, Asghar Farhadi's About Elly is, funnily enough, a film about hindsight. Among other things. It's best not to know a lot about it before seeing it, but here's a little. Some friends go to a beach house. The outing's organizer has brought along her daughter's kindergarten teacher, a newcomer to the group, whose ranks include a newly single man. It's understood what's going on here. But not fully understood. Not yet. The teacher seems quiet and cautious in this company — or maybe that's just how the others choose to characterize her. And the otherwise vacation-festive mood contains a subtle current of unwillingness to relax — or maybe that's just how Farhadi commands his material. Suffice to say that hoped-for results do not come to pass. What happens instead, especially in retrospect, is harrowing. Reviewable only with heavy spoiler protection, About Elly isn't actually as plot-heavy as this description might imply. In fact, it's entirely and masterfully character-driven. A movie so full of narrative switchbacks, reveals within reveals, and electrifying recriminations, is nowhere near as easy to sustain as Farhadi makes it seem. He has a uniformly excellent ensemble cast, and a fine sense of dramatic proportion. The cultural tension between progressivism and religious tradition seems explicitly Iranian, yet the human behavior seems precisely universal. Looking back on it now, it's easy to see About Elly as the work of a filmmaker for whom world-class status awaits. Or just to see it as a good movie: clever, compassionate, and completely riveting.

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Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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