Despite being released in Iran and on the film festival circuit in 2009 to great critical acclaim, About Elly has waited three years for UK distribution. Asghar Farhadi’s third feature was overlooked here until the director’s Oscar success with A Separation earlier this year. Now someone, somewhere has taken the reels off the shelves, dusted them down, and sent them to our screens. We are fortunate. Hailed in its own backyard as one of the greatest Iranian films of all time, About Elly is a captivating work exploring the catastrophic snowball effect of one ill-conceived white lie.
Arriving on the Caspian Sea shore, eight friends intend to spend a quiet weekend away from the bustle of Tehran. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani, Body of Lies), a beautiful young mother who stands at the heart of the group, has asked along Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), her child’s unmarried nursery school teacher. The other characters soon catch on, however, that there is an ulterior motive for Elly’s inclusion. Farhadi suffuses the arrival at a ramshackle villa with an atmosphere of forced jocularity which soon grates. The men dance and clap farcically; the women cackle and whisper like scheming schoolgirls around their guest. In an otherwise credible observation of human character, these scenes strike a false chord.
Once Farhadi gets down to business, About Elly is superb. A third of the way through, the eponymous character disappears. Nobody saw her leave. Her family in Tehran knows nothing of her whereabouts. The friends panic, aware in hindsight of their brittle insensitivity. Here, the film excels in capturing the group dynamic; Farhadi counterpoints the various emotional responses, with characters taking and ceding centre stage, but none fading into the background for a single moment.
The lack of subplot is testament to the director’s confidence in his own script. More dramas should be like this: whittled down to the bare bones of a single narrative strand, and driven by insightful characterisation. Occasionally, the friends’ alarm is allowed to spiral out of control. They hurl all the colours of fury and guilt against the drabness of their surroundings, and so interrupting each other that all scripted clarity becomes erased. Yet throughout, Farhadi keeps a tight leash, allowing the drama to ebb and flow. Moments of respite are washed away by new waves of bitter surprise. Nail-biting tension is echoed by the relentless roar of Caspian waves.
In the midst of it all, the principal focus remains on Sepideh. And Golshifteh Farahani is spectacular in the lead role. The story’s real trauma is this protagonist’s transformation – her transition from cocky, pushy matriarch to a devastated creature is wonderfully paced. The performance is all the more poignant for being Farahani’s last in Iran: she was banned from returning to her homeland at the beginning of this year.
Persian social mores may differ from our own, but this film has a universal voice. Whereas A Separation unflinchingly examined gender roles and social strictures in Iran, About Elly is, in many ways, a far more subtle exploration of social behaviour. It is the work of a director who prefers to challenge and stimulate his audience’s attitudes, rather than assault them with heavy-handed parables. Its suspenseful power is rooted in fear of the unknown. So before you see it, be sure to cocoon yourself away from any spoiler whisperings.
About Elly will be in cinemas on 14th September 2012
DIRECTOR: ASGHAR FARHADI
STARS: GOLSHIFTEH FARAHANI, SHAHAB HOSSEINI, TARANEH ALIDOUSTI, PEYMAN MOADI
RUNTIME: 118 MINS
COUNTRY: IRAN, FRANCE