Lies are the foundation of most dramas, and many comedies. There are entire films, usually rom-coms, which are about one lie spiraling out of control. The audience knows about the lie, so that is how the film finds its tension. Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian filmmaker behind the Oscar winning A Separation, withholds crucial information from the audience (and most of the characters, too). His stories are about how one lie can lead to a complex web of them, and how that creates a specific feeling of unease, or suspense. About Elly, Farhadi’s 2009 film that only recently found US distribution, is another example of the director at the peak of his powers, proving again he is one of the best dramatists working today.
Three Tehran families leave the city for a weekend to visit the beach. They are happy, middle class – the opening shot is full of joy – and they like to joke around. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) organized the trip, so she serves as the de facto leader when the villa they reserved is not ready. They make due with a run-down villa, dusting the place and picking up broken glass, then they’re ready to relax. Everyone understands Sepideh has an ulterior motive: she invited Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s teacher, to the beach so she could meet Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) who is visiting Iran from Germany. In between games of volleyball and charades, Ahmad and Elly talk. They seem to like each other – she is quite shy – but before everyone can relax, a terrible accident interrupts the holiday.
Farhadi has high demands for his actors, and the audience by extension. Characters speak over each other – subtitles miss some of the nuance – yet the dialogue is organic. Sepideh, Elly, and the others do not speak like they’re characters in a film; they speak like they’re friends on vacation. There are conversations about sleeping arrangements, and little quarrels between spouses. Feelings toward the characters are meant to develop in complex ways, and the actors handle the material with a kind of naturalism that must be incredibly difficult to achieve. No one performer stands out since the ensemble is more important than typical acting theatrics. There are no monologues here, only characters who are reeling from surprise.
Farhadi nonetheless finds tension in mundane conversation because of his observant camera: we see how one character feels slighted when a joke goes over the line. The conditions of the villa are so bad that Americans would give the place a negative score on Trip Advisor, yet we adjust to them quickly since the friends are so matter-of-fact about their conditions. Farhadi shrewdly defines the shape of the villa, which is crucial for later scenes since a lot depends on who hears a new lie, and when they hear it. But for a while, anyway, the film feels like we’re watching someone else’s home movies.
Among other things, About Elly is also a fascinating snapshot into modern Iran. Without making a big deal of it, Farhadi observes gender inequities and how modernity clashes with Iran’s traditional values. And although we do not realize it right away, this clash is what informs the gnawing tension that defines the film. In the wake of the accident, characters argue and grieve. Some characters know more about Elly than they initially let on (hence the title), and the imperfect information we’re given leads to a constant emotional adjustment.
Farhadi’s approach to drama is both exhausting and exhilarating: even with low-stakes settings, the film has the dense plotting of a thriller. Still, what elevates this material is the emotional fallout from the accident. Sepideh’s husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) realizes something is strange, for example, and his blunt language eventually leads to violence. There’s another scene where a father grills his children, and there an a queasy balance between authority and desperation. The camera sometimes spins around the action, seemingly without focus, as if Farhadi is another confused participant in the villa. This cinematic approach does not implicate the audience in what happens, although Western audiences will have a better understanding of how, exactly, their ways are different from ours.
The final third of About Elly involves the introduction of a new character. Up until that point, no one has met that character, but everyone has an opinion about him. It is incredible how this character means different things to different characters, and by the time the credits roll, there is an air of sadness precisely because everyone is finally on the same level. Farhadi sees how lies are a way of treading water; without them, the brutality of the truth has the finality of going under.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HbIRRM-ffc