It begins life as an Iranian Big Chill and at the end of Act 1, it morphs into Antonioni’s iconic L’Avventura. But by the time the various plot intrigues have finished spinning out, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly has emerged as something unique and wondrous: a taut drama full of perfectly-drawn characters and effective suspense, all turning on several key moral questions.
And by the end, you realise that Farhadi may just be the finest filmmaker working today.
Though it was initially released in Iran and France in 2009, About Elly has only played at festivals in the USA prior to its current limited release. Therefore, it was created prior to the two films for which Farhadi is most known in the West, A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013). A Separation is as good as any movie released in the 21st century. About Elly is right there with it.
Seven college friends – all educated thirty-something Iranians – go away for a weekend at an old and rather broken-down beach house. There are three married couples in the group, with young children in tow. That leaves the seventh, Ahmad, as the lone single. One of the married women, Sepidah, decides to play matchmaker and invites along her son’s teacher, Elly. Much of the early part of the film centres on the good-natured ribbing Ahmad must endure at the hands of these old friends who are very eager for him to find himself a wife.
But there are mysteries involving Elly, and these mysteries will soon play out to create some emotional devastation for everyone involved.
Farhadi is a genius at taking a single dramatic event and spinning out entirely realistic scenarios in which conflicting interests lead otherwise good people to make questionable choices. This was at the heart of A Separation, and it is on display here again. There is even an exchange toward the end of the movie in which one character, Amir, attempts to explain to his wife Sepidah why she must follow a particular course of action. He tells her that from their point of view, the events of the film seem perfectly logical. But to someone with a different agenda, this same series of events will look exceedingly suspicious. This recalls the famous line uttered by Jean Renoir’s character Octave in Renoir’s Rules of the Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.” Farhadi comes very close to Renoir’s humanism in understanding how complex each human decision can be. You will not find good guys and bad guys in his movies. You will find flawed and noble people, each with his or her own reasons.
Elly will go missing at some point in the story and the movie will evolve from a comic portrait of love and kinship into a searing drama of desperation and decision. As in any well-constructed story, little throw-away moments from early on will return to have great impact in the second half. Farhadi clearly knows how to build a plot.
But that is not what makes About Elly so riveting. The first thing that is apparent is that he and his actors are able to craft eight distinct characters. Early on, it is hard to distinguish the four men and the four women from each other. How are they related? Who is paired off with whom? This can be a bit disorienting for a while. But before long, each character emerges through their subtle differences, and though he never gives in to obvious exposition, Farhadi allows each character to stand out. The cast is uniformly strong, with Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh and Shahab Hosseini as Ahmad being at the centre of most things. But my two favourite performances came from Merila Zare’I as Shohreh and Ahmad Mehranfar as Manoochehr, two characters who have among the fewest lines of the eight. This may because they played against gender type, with Shohreh being the strongest and most outspoken of the women, and Manoochehr being the gentlest of the men. Or it may be because in a Farhadi movie, no character devolves into a simple type.
In A Separation and The Past, the characters are fighting an obvious culture war. The main players tend to be educated and partly westernised (The Past takes place in France), but they also display much loyalty to their religious and cultural roots. In this regard, Farhadi’s movies echo another giant, Yasujiro Ozu, whose movies continually chronicled the conflict at play in Japanese society between traditional and western influences. About Elly does not seem as concerned with this conflict on the surface. In a sense, this story could be lifted out of Iran and set in any country with a seashore. But those conflicts remain. The women have an equal vote in determining where they will stay and how they will address crisis. But one of those women, Naazi, always casts the same vote: “whatever my husband says.”
Farhadi’s visual style in About Elly is considerably more ambitious than it is in the two subsequent films. It is as if he chose to strip his style down to its simplest denominator to tell his more recent stories. In About Elly, he uses long handheld tracking shots to follow his characters through their vacation home and along the beach. This helps create a visual excitement which develops into visual desperation as things play out. He also has a great setting to film with waves crashing over rocks, and he takes full advantage. The sequence bridging Acts 1 and 2, beginning with Elly flying a kite and growing into a frantic rescue of one of the children who has disappeared in the water, is a tour de force of visual energy and imagery. From that point forward, the movie is unrelenting – not in terms of action as so many movies are today – but in terms of emotional pain and moral turmoil.
Ultimately, moral turmoil is what pushes About Elly to be as great as it is. At its core, it is about the choices we make and why we make them. The Big Chill, L’Avventura, the great films of Renoir and Ozu – they all tread on similar terrain. But it gets harder and harder to find movies like this today. Consider, for example, Erik Van Looy’s The Loft, from earlier this year. That movie, with its mainstream Hollywood pedigree, had a very similar premise and underlying moral question as About Elly. But it turned out to be an execrable story full of contrived plot patches and thoroughly detestable characters.
That it can for a few hours rescue current film from that depressing state may be the most encouraging thing About Elly.