The complex moral dimensions of deception and falsehood might be one of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s central plot preoccupations, but his main raison d’être is his fascination with the tragic nature of human behavior; how we fail ourselves, fail others, and how our childish foibles threaten to ruin our lives. In Farhadi’s melodramas, which are thankfully not often soap opera-ishly melodramatic, people have the good intentions, but their selfishness and fears often undermine their own actions. Farhadi’s tracked these threads at least twice, in his Foreign Language Oscar nominee “A Separation” — which features a toxic lie at its center in its tale of marital disintegration— and “The Past” which is emotionally devastating in its depiction of post-divorce fallout, and also features its own shocking revelation.
Set on the Iranian seaside, “About Elly,” which was actually finished in 2009 and is belatedly receiving its U.S. release now, is also built upon a cancerous dishonesty, the ramifications of which eventually utterly devastate and destroy not only what is meant to be a relaxing getaway vacation, but deep-bonded friendships.
Farhadi’s fourth film (two previous films also focused on crumbling marriages) centers on a group of middle class Iranian families and former college colleagues vacationing by the Caspian Sea. A portentous omen hits early on when a booking mix-up means the three couples, the children, and the guests are forced to trade the seaside mansion they had rented to squat in a deserted and dilapidated beach-fronted villa. There are two non-coupled outliers in the group, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Manouchehr (Ahmad Mehranfar), a divorced friend visiting from Germany. And the de facto leader (or lynchpin character anyhow) Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) tries to surreptitiously play matchmaker: Elly is her daughter’s schoolteacher and she hopes she may hit it off with Manouchehr. But neither Sepideh or Elly are telling the full story and this has dire consequences.
So as Farhadi is wont to do in his films, lies compound and spiral out of control, complications ensue, and before long, the families are sucked into a quicksand pit of shame. One of the family’s children nearly drowns when left unattended by the increasingly alienated Elly, who is not only hiding a secret, but overburdened by it.
In the chaos of it all, Elly vanishes, the friends unclear if she drowned going after the boy or simply skipped out as it had become clear she was appearing odd and feeling estranged from the group. Farhadi’s film briefly takes on the magnitude of “L’Avventura,” Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork about a group of vacationing Italian friends where the female friend and lover of one of the men mysteriously goes missing. But the similarities should and do end there. Antonioni’s film is really about the mysteries and complexities of human behavior, while Farhadi’s drama makes no bones about human weakness and faults. Yet, the filmmaker isn’t laying blame or finger wagging. As the friends and families struggle to find out what happened to Elly, deeper revelations about the school teacher’s personal history come to the surface. As Farhadi’s layered-onion narrative unpeels, the audience squirms as it all goes from bad to worse.
While as exactingly humanistic and emotionally painful as his more celebrated works, “About Elly” isn’t quite as polished. The movie’s inherent melodrama occasionally borders on histrionic, and the scene where Sepideh’s child nearly drowns is manipulative and maddening. But Farhadi still has an innate sense of human impulses and classic drama staging. Including great turns by actors Mani Haghighi, Saber Abbar, and Shahab Hosseini, the standouts are perhaps the most obvious choices, Golshifteh Farahani (“Shirin,” “The Patience Stone” and Jon Stewart‘s “Rosewater“) and Peyman Moaadi (“A Separation,” “Camp X-Ray”), two actors so accomplished, their skills are being embraced around the globe.
Like “A Separation,” and, to a lesser degree, “The Past,” it’s not necessarily easy to like or empathize with Farhadi’s characters, but the filmmaker’s not interested in upping the likability quotient. His “About Elly” characters are selfish, self-righteous, and in their anxiety makes them turn on each other rather than support one another.
But this is Farhadi’s brilliance. The audience may not love the people they’re watching, but it’s easy to become engrossed in their deepening quagmire. Admittedly, Farhadi’s movie can be hard to watch and nearly takes on kinship with horror movies when we feel compelled to yell at the screen and the characters for their stupid-headed mistakes. The difference is these aren’t contrived wrong-door plot machinations. In Farhadi’s film, his characters’ ill-conceived motivations just reveal more complicated truths of human nature.
Occasionally heavy-handed (especially the key beach scene) and arguably shrill — anger and indignation are key emotions in the film, but certainly justifiable — what Farhadi does nail is the tension between modern Iranian culture and the stricter rigors and pressures of the Islamic faith. As the strain between friends becomes unbearable because of the swelling fictions that have come to light, it’s clear that disgrace, dishonor, and saving face behind religion are key factors behind the crumbling dynamics (to say too much more about these conflicts spoils the secret at the heart of the movie which is better experienced).
While perhaps not perfect by Farhadi’s standards, “About Elly” is a classic tragedy that can be devastating and draining, and in that sense is an immersive, almost emotionally exhaustive experience.
Deceptions may be part of Farhadi’s repertoire, but “About Elly” focuses on the evils of underestimating the power of the little white lie. In his drama, the seemingly innocent fib snowballs, picks up speed, and soon becomes catastrophic enough to poison friendships for good, and perhaps most unjustly, end up damaging the most blameless of victims in the end. If not quite up to par with his later work, “About Elly” is still an essential step in the evolution of one of the most emerging talents on the international filmmaking scene. [B+]