Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Mani Haghighi, Merila Zarei, Peyman Moaadi, Ahmad Mehranfar, Rana Azadivar, Saber Abar
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has established himself as a master of psychological realism; able to plum the depths of human behavior while seamlessly integrating commentary on class, religion, and social norms without ever coming off didactic. In 2011, he won the foreign language Oscar for A Separation; a film which touched on a marriage crumbling under the weight of class conflicts and introduced the director to a more global audience. 2013's The Past followed, which continued Farhadi's firm grasp on intimate character psychology, but somewhere along the line, another picture which premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival got lost in distribution limbo. The tension between the United States and Iran may very well have accounted for the delay, but whatever the reason, there was a little seen Farhadi film which took some six years to reach us. The fact that the film has arrived with little fanfare is disconcerting, but for cinephiles who prize the director as an undisputed aeutur with something to say and the skills to back it up, About Elly is a cause for celebration. This is a tremendous piece of work; subtle, uncompromising, tense, and emotionally devastating.
About Elly feels like a companion piece to A Separation, even though it was made before and in some ways, is a superior distillation of similar themes. Farhadi focuses on class tensions between well-off Iranians and the lower-class, but the indoctrination of religion is far more obscured here. Additionally, the film showcases three couples heading to the Caspian Sea for a weekend getaway and the warm camaraderie between them, rarely seen in Iranian dramas, is key to understanding where Farhadi will take the narrative. One of the wives named Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has brought along soft-spoken but fetching school teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidousti) in hopes of pairing her off Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a single man who has just returned from Germany following a divorce. The first act is buoyant and at times gently humorous; featuring a bunch of seemingly well-adjusted people lounging round, playing volleyball, dancing, driving BMWs, and conducting themselves as individuals on holiday should. While this doesn't seem particularly illuminating at face value, its downright startling from a Western perspective, seeing as most Iranian dramas tend to focus on disenfranchised characters mired in crippling socioeconomic conditions. Though the mores and rituals of their geographical space is never out of sight; (the women all wear head-scarves, for example), the film is quite subtle in lulling the audience into a web that slowly unravels as new insights become unveiled.
The comparison to A Separation is also apt here in the way Farhadi doles out information gradually, revealing layers upon layers of white lies that eventually create cracks within the seemingly calm exterior of his characters. These cracks, which seem insignificant at first, become extreme once Elly mysteriously goes missing. Left to watch the children while the women go into town and the men play volleyball, what exactly happens to Elly and why it occurs in the first place creates an undeniable dramatic tension that Farhadi teases out with the precision of a master. The sequence where the adults frantically search the waters, first for a drowning boy, and later for Elly herself, is a tour de force of staging and movement. Using hand-held cameras and Cinéma vérité style, Farhadi plunges us into the chaos and confusion of a horrifying event, and with each new revelation, his actors brilliantly disintegrate into different stages of shock, disbelief, and grief. It's a set-piece for the ages; made all the more palpable because the film has spent enough time with these people for us to care about their circumstance. Presumed to have drowned after a search for her body comes up empty, the mysteries surrounding Elly's disappearance have a ripple effect that courses throughout each member of the clan and opens up new questions and half-resolved conundrums. The last half of the film details the moral and emotional fallout of such a tragedy, careening from one small revelation to the next, each causing us to see the characters from a different perspective and reassess whatever preconceptions we may have had about them.
More than simply a class critique or social allegory, About Elly transcends such reductive interpretations because it remains a gripping human drama with well-defined characters. Farhadi's handling of tone, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect. The picture never descends into sermonizing or heavy-handedness, even as the material dips towards the overly symbolic. The reason why Farhadi's films often feel like urgent examinations of the human condition rather than existential treatises on Iranian sociopolitical conditions is because he never loses sight of his characters. All of the actors here give convincing portrayals, with Alidousti and Hosseini creating some genuine chemistry in their few scenes together as Elly and Ahmad, respectively. The real powerhouse, however, is Farahani as Sepideh; a respectable middle-class woman who means well, but whose simple decision to play matchmaker results in a spiraling succession of half-truths and cover-ups that peels away at the amicable facade of all involved. Farahani's gradual descent into hysterics is never over-the-top or grating; instead, she finds the emotional center of someone simply trying to keep things together. It's a very strong performance in a film that doesn't lack for strong performances, and the way each actor is allowed a few key scenes in order to get across their point of view means that there are no weak links in the cast here. In the end, About Elly is hopelessly grim and crushingly sad; a film which uses open spaces to devastating effect, and whose themes involving the difference between upper-middle-class Iranians, while not exactly subtle, are always at the service of a tense psychological thriller. In other words, About Elly is a great film from a great filmmaker, and hopefully, we won’t have to wait six years for another Farhadi masterpiece.