Gender roles in crisis in About Elly

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      Starring Golshifteh Farahani. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable.

      A game of charades, in which men, women, and children can only think of phrases related to family, is the central metaphor in About Elly. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi made this before 2011’s A Separation, the first Iranian film to win an Oscar.

      Elly isn’t as tightly focused as that effort, and it’s less loose than his foreign-set follow-up, The Past. But it shares with those tales a flair for the quietly theatrical and the conviction that various codes of gender and honour (religious, tribal, legal, or whatever) outweigh human connections in moments of extreme stress.

      The young woman of the title (Taraneh Alidoosti) is the only unmarried gal accompanying three couples, their various children, and the newly divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), visiting from Germany. Both singletons are uneasy with the social manipulations of Sepideh (cast standout Golshifteh Farahani, recently seen as an Egyptian queen in Exodus: Gods and Kings). She’s having her own marital problems, but all have set aside urban cares for a nice weekend at the beach. (The film was shot, stylishly, on the Caspian Sea, north of Tehran.)

      The group even enjoys cleaning out a dilapidated old villa after initial plans fall through. Farhadi shows his deftness for individuation as friends and family reveal their personalities through banter and jokes. (New York–born Peyman Moaadi, the husband in Separation, provides more highlights here.) There’s a passive-aggressive edge to the joshing, and a willingness to tell small fibs to avoid embarrassment, bringing a sense of dread creeping into the downtime.

      A series of cryptic phone calls tell us Elly is expected back in the city, and she defies Sepideh’s insistence that she stay for more than the one day she promised. So it’s exceedingly hard to figure out where Elly has gone after the group faces a crisis involving the children. Soon, recriminations take over, the initial falsehoods begin compounding, and everyone scrambles to restore order—with women chafing at the responsibility to defer to men they resent or don’t even know.

      In the end, teased out in a slightly overlong two hours, it’s society itself that keeps these people at sea.