Release: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Asghar Farhadi; Azad Jafarian
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
This film originally debuted in Iran in 2009 but American markets did not get it until last year, hence the film qualifies as a ‘recent’ release on this site.
Asghar Farhadi is an extraordinarily perceptive filmmaker with a profound ability to distill the ‘ordinariness’ of the human experience into cinematic form. Whereas even the most discerning of dramas manifest as art imitating life, About Elly sits on a lonely shelf above, becoming life itself and told artfully through an empathetic lens.
Heartbreaking and thrilling in almost equal measure (it’s certainly more the former), Farhadi’s fourth effort simultaneously explores tenets of Iranian culture — honor, loyalty, family values — while cutting the shape of humanity’s oh-so-imperfect design. Even with the best intentions at heart, we are still capable of such remarkable destruction. In this case, destruction of a most personal and emotional nature. At its core, About Elly is about a lie or a series of lies that start off as minor omissions of facts but quickly swell to potentially world-shattering cover-ups. And then, the revelations.
Here is a complex mystery that smartly leans on fundamentals: powerful performances and engrossing storytelling. About Elly sees a trio of middle-class couples, the majority former law school friends, taking a weekend trip to a seaside villa in northern Iran, an excursion that goes horribly awry after the sudden disappearance of Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young schoolteacher who is brought along by her friend Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). The resultant turmoil whisks viewers far away from the bon mot of its beguiling beginnings and towards a wholly befitting if not still surprising conclusion. Along the way some brave directorial decisions are made that, in retrospect, make the experience what it is.
The discovery process is so utterly immersive the lack of music of any kind goes unnoticed until the closing credits where a suitably melancholic ode to the titular character strikes the heart with a note of bittersweet finality. That absence isn’t a case of careless oversight; Farhadi seems to subscribe to the notion that if a story is good enough it should sustain itself on its own merits. He isn’t denouncing soundtracks and scores as frivolous, unnatural embellishments as aural stimulation plays a crucial part in generating and sustaining tension. (As one character claims late into the affair, “I want to go back to Tehran. The sound of the waves is driving me crazy.”)
Also missing are major dramatic setpieces, save for one sequence that, once explained, would diminish the impact of the experience. Suffice it to say the drama is kept low-key, with Farhadi choosing to emphasize the physical and psychological changes in his performances as things go from bad to worse. And on the subject of acting, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a rather unknown group of contributors who do finer work than this particularly attractive but otherwise convincing collective of Middle Eastern performers. It is their collaboration that lends this puzzle its density — their feeding off of one another’s rapidly deteriorating optimism as the mystery as to Elly’s whereabouts intensifies. You can almost disregard the English subtitles: context clues are less than subtle. It’s not difficult to see these people are reeling in the shock of how a fun trip could turn out so miserable. Finger pointing begins and won’t stop until all possible assumptions have been made.
About Elly has a bleeding heart for humanity. Subtle social faux pas become pivotal plot points. How one’s trust in another can be so easily betrayed; how a careless laugh might upset someone else who doesn’t understand the joke. How manners and customs seem completely alien to another person — this isn’t a direct reference to the western viewer of course, although that certainly applies as well — while also appearing roughly congruent to those of another society’s. (Familial love and acceptance, religious faith and civil obedience isn’t exactly a regional thing.)
That may be me reaching for themes that aren’t necessarily priorities for Farhadi, but extrapolation is totally a function of his ability to convince us this is all too real. Sure, it’s a product of Iranian culture but there’s something much more universal about the design. Even if the film took its sweet time to earn an international distribution, the quality of its contents more than justify why it absolutely deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Recommendation: Thought-provoking, deeply involving and emotionally devastating, About Elly is a rare breed of drama that places emphasis on humanity rather than melodrama. An absolute must-see for those trying to diversify their tastes in world cinema.
Running Time: 119 mins.
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