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Review: In Farhadi’s ‘About Elly’ Shocking Secrets Unfold After a Puzzling Disappearance

Review: In Farhadi's 'About Elly' Shocking Secrets Unfold After a Puzzling Disappearance

Fascinated by the complex motivations that lie beneath the
familiar surface, director Asghar Farhadi has masterfully crafted an impressive
body of work that thrives on both the universal flaws of the human condition
and the idiosyncratic mechanics of Iranian society.  His films are riveting mazes that reveal themselves slowly
as the characters are exposed and confronted with their wrongdoings, fears, and
unflattering truths. Secrets are at the core of Farhadi’s narratives, but they
are never easily resolved or simplistic in their relevance. Every decision is
ambiguous and morally conflicting in ways that only Farhadi could concoct.

International audiences became aware of the Iranian
director’s undeniable talents when “A Separation” took the festival circuit by
storm and eventually earned Farhadi a Golden Globe and an Oscar. But prior to
that monumental achievement, the incredibly wise filmmaker had already made
several films that positioned him as a leading voice in his country’s film industry.

“The Beautiful City” in 2004 and “Fireworks Wednesday” in 2006 showcased his
affinity for stories that deal with a different segment of the Iranian population, which goes against the image of the country we have in West. Middle class
families, strong female leads, and Iranians abroad, all form part of Farhadi’s
vision, and he’s managed to cleverly do it without trouble from the infamous
cultural censors.

Right before his 2011 massive art house hit, the director
released “About Elly” in 2009 back in his homeland, where it was extremely well
received. The film went on to win in Berlin and Tribeca, and became that year’s
Iranian Academy Award Submission for Best Foreign Language Film. But somehow
this underrated masterwork wasn’t picked up for U.S. distribution, and that
remained the case until Cinema Guild announced earlier this year that they
would be in charge of finally bringing the film to American audiences. “About
Elly” has a simple premise, but those who’ve experienced Farhadi’s thought
provoking artistry should know that his films are anything but simple.

It’s summer in Teheran, and a group of friends is leaving
the city for the weekend to relax near the ocean. Three couples and their
children, plus a single man, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has just returned from Germany, and a
young single teacher named Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) . Shy and well-mannered, Elly reluctantly
accepted to come after being invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), one of her student’s mom.  Sepideh is delighted with her presence,
but she also wanted her to come so she could introduce her to Ahmad, who has
just gone through a divorce. In Sepideh’s mind it seemed like the perfect idea
to have these two singles meet during a fun weekend surrounded by friendly company.

Unable to secure the accommodations the group usually gets
on their trips, they have to settle for a rundown beachside villa. The place
needs cleaning, but otherwise it appears to be the ideal place for the large
gang. They settle in, cook some food, play charades and try to create
opportunities for Elly and Ahmad to be alone. She seems to like him but when he
inquires about her life she is very reserved. Sepideh, who orchestrated the
trip and their meeting, is pleased with the results so far. But this tale of
newfound romance soon takes a turn when an unfortunate incident takes place the
following morning. In the aftermath everyone is rattled and Elly has disappeared.

Without spoiling any of the perfectly arranged twists, one
could describes what ensues as a clash between what’s acceptable for a woman to
do in this type of society and the communal fear of this group to face
consequences for what’s happened. Honor is a crucial element in this dilemma,
which ends with a powerful revelation. As the drama intensifies the characters
crumble on the screen allowing us to see their individual anxieties. Amir (Mani Haghighi),
Sepideh’s husband, questions her intentions to bring Elly along for the trip,
while Ahmad and the rest attempt to piece together every small event to
understand what’s happened. They second-guess every interaction they ever had
with Elly that night, what her reactions to those exchanges were, and wonder if their behavior
could have caused her disappearance.

Choreographed as an effortlessly paced sequence of events, “About
Elly” grabs you instantly and never lets go. This is a drama written and directed
with an extraordinary notion of human behavior and in which every small detail
has its narrative reward. Storytelling like this is simply mesmerizing. Farhadi
commands his entire ensemble cast to give heart-wrenching and layered
performances shining with incredible honesty. Still, above them all is Farahani’s
tremendously affecting work as Sepideh. Her pain and guilt are tangible and immensely
moving throughout.

Thrilling and unexpected, “About Elly” is a spellbinding
drama that is as visceral as it is marvelously puzzling. It reinforces Farhadi’s
status as one of the most important filmmakers of our time, one that works with
global sensibilities in an Iranian context. 

“About Elly” is currently playing in NYC and opens in L.A. Friday May 8th at the Nuart

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