As it engages in delicate, potentially world-changing negotiations about its nuclear future, Iran quietly maintains its status as one of the most vibrant national cinemas. It has not gone smoothly, with artists challenging the limitations of a theocratic regime and paying the price for it. Jafar Panahi, convicted of propaganda against the Iranian government, languishes in a legal limbo, though he still manages to smuggle out a homemade minimalist masterpiece almost every year. Abbas Kiarostami makes his films in Europe and they have been banned in Iran.
But when Asghar Farhadi became the first Iranian to win an Oscar with his 2011 film, “A Separation,” a new champion emerged. Despite the honors, the film received some criticism from hard-liners for depicting Iran as morally challenged. He made his next film, “The Past” (2013), in Paris, and though it too received acclaim (but no Oscar nominations), there have not been any signs that Farhadi, now back in Tehran, is working on any new projects.
In the meantime, Western audiences can enjoy “About Elly.” A 2009 film only now getting theatrical distribution in the United States, it is perhaps Farhadi’s richest, most complex and ambitious. It starts out with the joie de vivre of an Eric Rohmer beach movie, darkens into the moral complications and complexities of Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” (1939), and ends with the irresolution and existential dismay of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura” (1960).
A small caravan of cars, vacationers from Tehran, zooms through a tunnel, overtaking one another. Heads jut out the windows, and passengers scream in excitement. Not the stern stereotype of Iranian reserve we are used to. But these are city folk — college educated, upper-middle-class yuppies with secular inclinations.
They are heading for a weekend stay at a rented lodging by the Caspian Sea, all organized by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). She is like a Persian version of Jane Austen’s Emma, a well-intended busybody obsessed with manipulating people into doing what she thinks is in their best interest. In this case she wants to set up her friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), back from Germany after a rough divorce, with Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s nursery school teacher.
The place they reserved proves unavailable, so an undaunted Sepideh leads them to a derelict villa on the beach. In high spirits, they clean and sort out the dumpy interior, transforming it into a social microcosm, a confinement that sours the joie de vivre into a miasma of resentment, envy, secrets, and lies. While initially the characters are shot in frolicking groups, as conflicts and suspicions rise, they appear in twos and threes. When catastrophe strikes, the void that binds them opens, and each character is isolated in his or her own frame, disconnected from the others except for looks of guilt, recrimination, terror, and grief.
A brief epiphany of freedom occurs with a kite on the beach. But then the gray sea asserts its power, its pounding waves an insistent reproach.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.