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A group vacation at a beach turns tragic, then mysterious, then revelatory in “About Elly,” a film by the brilliant Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.

Farhadi’s keen observation of domestic dissonance, “A Separation,” won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2012, and he followed that up with the haunting mystery “The Past” in 2013. “About Elly” actually preceded those films, but it is just now coming to the U.S. It’s certainly on a par with those splendid works.

Farhadi has an uncanny gift for surprises that seem perfectly natural; his stories take unexpected turns without ever seeming contrived. At the same time, he has the ability to peel layers off characters subtly; he’s constantly revealing what’s underneath and within. And those revelations can cut like a knife.

Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a Kindergarten teacher who accompanies four couples and their friend Ahmad (Shabab Hoessini) on a vacation to the sea. It’s obvious that Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the mother of one of Elly’s students, is trying to get Elly and Ahmad together, a notion Ahmad seems fine with.

The film’s first 30 minutes are a study in normalcy as the group settles into a dusty beach house. They break bread, play charades, friends relaxing. The next morning, the men are playing volleyball, and Elly is watching and playing with the children on the beach.

Then chaos erupts, and Farhadi packs more panic and action into a churning sea rescue that lasts a few minutes than most Hollywood films can manage in two hours. At its resolution, the friends look around. Where’s Elly?

Most films would build toward that action sequence; this one comes alive in its wake. Was Elly kidnapped or attacked? Could she have drowned? All knew she wanted to go home early; could she have just taken off?

Suddenly the friends realize they know very little about Elly; they’re not even sure what her formal name is. Lies and betrayals are revealed, the house becomes a hive of anxiety, guilt and secrecy. Who’s to blame and what are they to be blamed for?

Farhadi builds an elaborate psychodrama on the disappearance, with small lies repeatedly breeding big consequences and a missing woman’s honor on the line. By the time the mystery is solved, it hardly seems to matter. What matters is the casual lack of honesty that almost everyone seems to depend on. “About Elly’ isn’t really about Elly all that much; it’s more about us and the holes we dig for ourselves.

tlong@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

‘About Elly’

GRADE: A

Not rated

Running time: 119 minutes

At The Detroit Film Theatre

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