Asghar Farhadi’s Early Masterpiece

Through a seaside mystery, About Elly explores the irrational rules placed on women in Iran.

Michael Atkinson April 21, 2015

Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh, whose well-intentioned matchmaking leads to disaster.

If you’ve been elec­tri­fied by Asghar Farhadi’s A Sep­a­ra­tion (2011) and The Past (2013), you’re well aware of the Iran­ian film­maker’s for­mi­da­ble skill with pure nar­ra­tive torque. Farhadi’s movies are adult, sharp and direct­ed at the art­house and fes­ti­val audi­ence, but not obscure or demand­ing. His film­making is both sophis­ti­cat­ed and crys­tal-clear. How­ev­er, it’s his scripts, the inex­orable ten­sion of his care­ful­ly con­struct­ed sto­ries, that do the heavi­est lift­ing. And the cri­sis always ends up being about gender.

The search for Elly—did she drown, or did she leave?—is frantic and clotted with unknowables. Who was she, and what happened?

About Elly (2009), Farhadi’s award-win­ning pre­cur­sor to A Sep­a­ra­tion, is just as mas­ter­ful an ora­to­rio of so­cietal cat­a­stro­phe and would’ve cer­tainly found U.S. release soon­er if not for rights issues. At first, the sce­nario couldn’t be sim­pler: a group of upper­mid­dle-class, grown-up col­lege friends con­vene on a rent­ed beach spot for a vaca­tion, with fam­i­lies in tow.

Amid the in-joke josh­ing and high spir­its, we imme­di­ate­ly glean how the col­lege dynam­ic has sur­vived. Sepi­deh (Gol­shifteh Fara­hani), the glam­our puss among them, is the alpha girl, the orga­niz­er and busy­body, a real­i­ty of which her old­er hus­band, Amir (Mani Haghighi), is quite aware, and wary. Ahmad (Sha­hab Hos­sei­ni) is the sin­gle man on the premis­es, hav­ing returned from Ger­many after a painful divorce. At Sepideh’s urg­ing, a fourth woman is present: Elly (Taraneh Ali­doosti), sin­gle and love­ly, and unknown to the oth­ers. Sepi­deh can­not help try­ing to play matchmaker.

All is well and of no great import, but Farhadi’s elec­tric and urgent style of fram­ing and cut­ting tells us, sub­liminally, that dis­as­ter is pend­ing. When their favorite cot­tage is tak­en, they set­tle for a ram­shackle house where, metaphor­i­cal­ly enough, the win­dows always seem to be break­ing. Elly remains some­what dis­tant, mak­ing phone calls and insist­ing she can stay only one night. No one but Sepi­deh cares very much. Then the light­ning strikes: While left alone on the beach

with Elly, one of the chil­dren near­ly drowns. It’s a scene shot and edit­ed like a heart attack, as the adults slam into pan­icked over­drive, and the hol­iday becomes a date with mor­tal­i­ty. The boy sur­vives, but when every­one turns around, Elly has disappeared.

Cinephiles will imme­di­ate­ly re­call Michelan­ge­lo Antonioni’s mod­ern land­mark L’Avventura (1960), in which the search for a miss­ing wom­an becomes telling­ly obscured by the oth­er char­ac­ters’ pre­oc­cu­pied narcis­sism. But Farhadi’s con­cerns are more imme­di­ate and dra­mat­ic: the search for Elly — did she drown, or did she leave? — is fran­tic and clot­ted with unknow­ables. Who was she, and what hap­pened? It’s also, in Iran, a nest of trou­ble­some issues. For one thing, as the group learns from a shat­tered Sepi­deh, Elly was tan­gled in an unhap­py engage­ment, leav­ing them with the aware­ness that the entire trip had osten­si­bly com­promised her virtue. One car ride she took alone with Ahmad was enough to destroy her reputation.

What about her fiancé and her fam­ily? Elly had lied about where she was going, Sepi­deh had lied about Elly, and so almost organ­i­cal­ly the group begins a cycle of truth dis­tor­tion, lying to the fiancé and to each oth­er. Social propri­ety hangs over them like a storm cloud, and fis­sures with­in the group, and in mar­riages, open wide.

Nar­cis­sism isn’t the social ill at work here; rather, as in A Sep­a­ra­tion, Farha­di is skew­er­ing his society’s set of irra­tional gen­der rules by wit­ness­ing the tor­tur­ous knots it puts his char­ac­ters through. Lies are required, and, to accom­mo­date the dis­tort­ed real­i­ty that results, more lies after that. Implic­it­ly, a woman’s sin­gu­lar puri­ty is more impor­tant than whether she’s dead or alive.

The mys­tery of About Elly, then, lies in cul­tur­al self-decep­tion, and what a ruinous mis­match con­ser­v­a­tive Islam­ic norms can make with 21st-cen­tu­ry pro­gressive civ­i­liza­tion. But it’s still about sev­en peo­ple in a beach house, con­fronting how the mod­ern, edu­cat­ed, sec­u­lar peo­ple they thought they were remain trapped in the past, in a soci­ety they can­not pre­tend they’re not part of. Mas­ter­ful­ly per­formed across the board and filthy with details (amid the angst over Elly, you glimpse the near­ly drowned boy snug­gled up against a space heater, ignored), the film is both riv­et­ing and res­o­nant in over­whelm­ing mea­sures, and will remain one of the best released this year.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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