RATING |

Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has amassed quite a following among American cinephiles with a series of exquisitely observed and expertly paced dramas about the vicissitudes of human relationships.

As precise and scientific as a postmortem and as moving and heartfelt as a lyrical poem, Farhadi's work in such films as The Past (2013) and A Separation (2011) provides portraits of the soul as it is transformed by the ups and downs of marriage or the demands of caring for an elderly parent.

Yet always, murmuring just beneath the surface, there's a political undercurrent to Farhadi's films, a gentle whisper of a critique aimed at the weight of Iran's combined cultural and political intransigence.

A tragic drama of manners, About Elly casts its lens not only on romantic relationships, but also at the often capricious dynamics that take over when a group is faced with a threat.

Shahab Hosseini stars as Ahmad, a recently divorced thirtysomething expat living in Germany who is back in Tehran for a brief visit. His coterie of old college friends - three married couples - try to cheer him up with a weekend getaway at the beach.

To spice things up, Ahmad's closest friend, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), decides to play matchmaker and bring along her friend Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti).

It's easy to get distracted by the exoticism of a film from an Islamic country - young, hip, smart professionals all, the women nonetheless are fastidious about keeping every inch of skin and hair covered at all times, even when lounging on the beach.

Stranger still to an American viewer, About Elly takes place in a culture where an engaged woman cannot spend any leisure time with another man, however innocent their behavior, without causing a major scandal and a devastating crisis in social protocol. This breach of proper Iranian behavior forms the heart of About Elly: We learn by degrees that Elly may not be as free as her friend Sepideh has led everyone to believe.

It's clear the group is more outraged by the scandal Elly brings to their door than by a tragic accident that also occurs during the cursed weekend.

But About Elly shouldn't alienate viewers all that much. Think about the social reality Jane Austen dissects in her novels - and their many film adaptations.

Farhadi doesn't really share Austen's wry humor, but in so many other ways, their works converge. And to be sure, the director is as much a master of his medium as Austen was of hers.

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