Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Written by: Asghar Farhadi & Azad Jafarian.
Starring: Golshifteh Farahani (Sepideh), Shahab Hosseini (Ahmad), Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly), Merila Zare'i (Shohreh), Mani Haghighi (Amir), Peyman Moaadi (Peyman), Ra'na Azadivar (Naazi), Ahmad Mehranfar (Manoochehr), Saber Abar (Alireza).
The characters in the films of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi are always only superficially happy – they are hiding a lot of secrets, that will over the course of the movie come out, and ruin everything. This was true of his Oscar winning A Separation and the follow-up, The Past (which everyone seemed to like more than I did – but I loved A Separation). This year saw the first release stateside of About Elly – his debut film, made before A Separation or The Past, and its fascinating to see where he started from – and it is a confident debut, that is undeniably the work of the same writer/director.
The film is about several families heading off for a beach vacation in a large, sprawling, dilapidated house down by the water. Everyone is part of a couple already – except for Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) and Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Ahmad has recently gotten divorced from his German wife, and Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahami) thinks that Elly would be a good match for him. But Sepideh doesn’t know Elly very well at all – and no one else on the trip knows her at all. Everyone is seemingly having a good time on their first night – and Ahmad and Elly do seem to be getting along. But Elly says she has to return to the city – she has a sick mother. And then two of the children go into the water when they shouldn’t have – they end up okay, but no one can find Elly. Did she go into the water to try and save them, and drown? Did she leave without telling anyone? As the long day turns into a longer night and then back again, the couples talk and talk, and find out just how little they know about Elly –and each other, and frayed relationships start coming apart.
This is a film that sneaks up on you slowly. In its first act, it’s a fun, and kind of breezy. These characters could be middle class Americans on vacation – they seem secular, fun loving and easy going. When Elly goes missing however, that is when things start to become tense – and when the reality of living in Iran starts becoming apparently. Even if none of these characters are overly religious – they do know they could be consequences for inviting a single woman along with them on vacation – especially when they get word from her supposed brother, who is really her fiancé. But then, why was she there if she was engaged? Did she want to get married to this man? And what’s his reaction?
There are elements of the thriller genre here that isn’t readily apparent in Farhadi’s other films – which are more straight ahead dramas. Farhadi doesn’t use the genre hook as a crutch however – but really, masterfully uses it to evoke tension, which helps to fracture things even more. Sepideh in particular goes from being the most outgoing and fun loving of the bunch, to someone who is pretty much destroyed by what happened – growing older seemingly by the minute in the film’s second half, as one by one, everyone turns against her.
The film really is quite something – especially for a first time filmmaker. It’s funny, touching, thrilling and tragic –and it moves through this various stages of the movie with ease. We already know what Farhadi is capable of – A Separation is even better than About Elly – but this is a fascinating first chapter in what has become one of the more interesting voices to come out of International Cinema in the last few years.