Asghar Farhadi’s name is not unknown to cinephiles of world cinema. He won an Oscar for ‘A Separation’, (in the Best Foreign Film category), a refreshing film which brought in shining reviews and changed many perceptions about Iran. Due to his international success, many went back to view his older films, and his previous film ‘About Elly’ was even given a release recently (though it had already won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009).
About Elly, Farhadi’s 2009 psychological thriller has been called Hitchcock-ian, and I have to say that I do not agree with a comparison like that. I do not even think any comparison is necessary. Hitchcock was a master of his art and so is Farhadi – but they do not need to be compared at all.
Farhadi, though a product of the Iranian New Wave movement, is quite different from his predecessors or contemporaries, in that his stories are based on the Iranian middle-class. He also focuses on the frailty of his characters; their apparent goodness and yet their complexities at the same time. A common theme he employs is the multitudes of truths and untruths that stem from circumstances that the characters have to face. Whereas in ‘A Separation’, Nader and Simin have to face the reality of a divorce, leading to a change in their dynamics, in ‘About Elly’, the group has to come to terms with the thin strands that actually hold them together.
About Elly follows the story of three married Tehranian couples (with kids), who decide to drive up to the Caspian Sea coast for a three-day holiday. Sepideh, one of the women in the group, invites her daughter’s attractive teacher Elly to join them on the trip with the intention of pairing her up with her recently divorced friend Ahmad, who is back from Germany for a sojourn. The three couples, Elly and Ahmad end up on an abandoned seaside house after their prior arrangements are changed last minute. Here the couples hope that Ahmad and Elly will be drawn together. Elly notes the constant teasing of Ahmad by the couples when she goes out for a few moments. She even indicates to Sepideh that she intends to stay only a day and then return home to her mother who has recently undergone heart surgery. In an unexpected turn of events, Elly goes missing and the group is left to wonder about how little they know about her, and are forced to recollect their previous encounters and words with her that might have caused her to ‘disappear’.
Firstly, I have to say that this film might leave one quite distressed. If you’ve watched ‘A Separation’, the open ending there is not as perplexing as the one in this film. This movie addresses many questions and realities that surface after Elly goes missing. And this is the entire crux of the film in essence. It does not try to keep suspense up by introducing a murderous villain. However it does reveal the delicate situation these three college-friend couples fall into once Elly disappears.
Farhadi keeps realism so intact that the characters start reflecting aspects of oneself. Golshifteh Farahani (well known for being exiled from Iran), plays Sepideh to perfection. Her anxiety after Elly’s disappearance, her inconsolable determination to shield Elly from ‘dishonour’ and her willingness yet helplessness to tell the truth (as she is the only one who knows the most about Elly), make her a compelling character.
Shahab Hosseini plays the youthful Ahmad (Hosseini is also there in ‘A Separation’ as Razieh’s husband Hojjat). Ahmad shares a great connection with Sepideh, almost to the point of treating her like a protector. He allows her to match-make for him and in a way, is more approachable to Sepideh than her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) is.
The rest of the group, Peyman (Payman Maadi), Shohreh (Merila Zare’i), (both of whom are also there in ‘A Separation’ as Nader and Termeh’s teacher), along with Manoochehr (Ahmad Mehranfar), Naazi (Ra’na Azadivar), Amir, and Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), make up a really strong cast. The actors never for once let you feel that you are actually watching a film. Their ‘harmless’ jokes, mirth, dancing, insecurities, fear, condemnation, all seem to be very naturally human. Like in ‘A Separation’, there is no villain, and the characters cannot fully be blamed for their circumstances and actions – and this is what makes the film so realistic. There is no clear distinction between black and white, and therefore, even at the end, there is a sense of uneasiness that there is no one to blame.
The subjectivity of truth and untruth is something Farhadi deals with both in ‘A Separation and in ‘About Elly’. When the group spends the first night at the seaside, there is mirth and happiness, and the closeness of these college-friend couples is revealed. This brings the viewer closer to this tightly-knit group, in that the crazy antics of theirs seem to be completely realistic. Once Elly goes missing, these dynamics are heavily affected.
Characters are caught in an inner turmoil to shield the truth. At times, they are even unaware of the truth. They seek the truth and yet wish to take refuge in the untruth. Such are the complex characters that Farhadi brings to the screen. As a director, that is undoubtedly one of his most incredible strengths.
Farhadi also hints on the gender roles the group of middle-class Modern Iranians hold on tightly to. The relationships between the couples themselves are strongly contrasted. The sanctity of a woman is brought into question. The power wielders have their own thoughts and agendas and interpretations of events and truths. This is another reason the film is so compelling.
Once again Farhadi creates such an unfamiliar picture of Iran (to the West) that those who see the country as one full of raving lunatics, will have to change their perceptions. His characters scream madly in tunnels just for the fun of it. The men wear t-shirts and the women wear jeans, and the men also dance and sing songs. That should help you knock off the ideas mainstream media have created about Iran over the years.
In true Iranian New Wave fashion, Farhadi’s stories are gripping, but they do not have the linear and expected notions of filmmaking and are almost entirely devoid of happy endings and completely bombastic climaxes. His films play out like real life and are best watched with the same expectations. I have never come across Iranian New Wave cinema that is purely escapist. However, if you want to watch something compelling, intelligent and completely involving, undoubtedly ‘About Elly’ has all the ingredients for that.
Most importantly, it has its heart in the right place.