2009 CIFF: About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Asghar Farhadi, whose film Fireworks Wednesday won the Gold Hugo at the 2006 CIFF, is back again with another strong contender for that top prize. About Elly sets up a predictable, even clichéd conflict and smartly, compellingly shows the many ways people have of reacting and coping with it. Such an examination has a faint, but insistent connection to the broader conflicts that plague Iran, whose national cinema has made a high art of suggestive parallels between the personal and the political.

A group of well-heeled friends leave the bustle of Tehran for a holiday weekend together near the seaside. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is the center of activity, arranging the accommodations and playing matchmaker for the newly divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) by inviting Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s grade-school teacher, along. On the road, the shy Elly interacts briefly with the other holiday makers. Each forms an opinion of her, deciding finally that they like her and approve of the match.

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When the band drives up to the main house to pick up the keys to the villa Sepidah always rents for the occasion, they learn that its owner will be using it that weekend. On the road, the parks and campgrounds are filled with people escaping the city. There is no way they will find another place to stay. Sepidah lies to the caretaker about Ahmad and Elly being newlyweds to appeal to her sympathy for their plight. The caretaker suggests a seaside villa, though it is dirty and its windows are broken. Desperate, and in hot water with her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) for lying to him about the availability of the villa, Sepidah suggests they take a look. Good-naturedly, the friends set about making the villa liveable. In the evening, the caretaker brings extra blankets for the newlyweds, and sings a wedding song. Jokingly, the friends play along, with one of the women ululating in the traditional manner. Elly, embarrassed, goes to the kitchen while the others discuss the match.

It appears that Elly and Ahmad are hitting it off fairly well, but Elly insists to Sepidah that she must leave that night. Sepidah insists she stay and refuses to drive her into town where Elly can catch a bus back. One of the women who has stayed behind to watch the three small children asks Elly to take over. Arash, a four-year-old boy, is playing in the active sea, and the two young girls are trying to fly a kite. Elly goes to help them untangle the string. We see quick shots of her running back and forth joyfully to get the kite airborne. A lingering shot of the kite firmly floating in the breeze is the last peaceful moment this group will have.

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It was obvious that Arash was going into the water and would need rescue. The men are called from their volleyball game to save him, which they do in a heart-stopping sequence. It is only after Arash has been revived and taken indoors to safety that the friends realize that Elly is missing. Out they all go into the sea to search for her, including a very distraught Sepidah, but there is no trace of her anywhere. Left to stew in their worry and guilt, the friends start accusing each other and Elly of the fate that befell her, even doubting that she went in to rescue Arash when the women recall her saying she was so insistent about going home that she said she would walk. Slowly, a series of secrets Elly and Sepideh had been keeping are revealed, and lie upon lie is concocted to save face for all concerned.

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About Elly is extremely smart about human nature. These people aren’t bad—when we watch them pitch together to make the wreck of a villa habitable and play charades, including the children in the game, it’s hard not to want to join them at what could have been a seaside idyll. But their weaknesses are what Farhadi is interested in, the way guilt can turn normally rational people into blamers and liars—cowards seeking to avoid responsibility by dumping their psychological burden somewhere else. The ease with which the lies come, particularly to Sepideh, who selfishly says what she needs to to get her way and then, ironically, is forced to lie to cover her friends, reveals the rot at the center of privilege. Although this film is very personal, it is also universal.

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All of the performances are great. Alidoosti, a real beauty, plays her part like the Mona Lisa, her shy smile concealing her own uncertainty and shame. Hosseini is a very handsome and charismatic actor, and his is perhaps the most decent character in the film, though the hotheaded Amir, brilliantly realized by Haghighi, feels Ahmad is constantly intruding on Sepideh for help. In fact, Amir’s rage at Sepideh’s habitual lying is at the root of this projection, yet another example of how Farhadi maintains the dual levels of this film so masterfully. Particularly for those familiar with the undercurrents in Iranian cinema, it’s not hard to see the critique of the politics of the region in this simple story.

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I’m not very good at predicting which films the CIFF jury will choose to honor, but Golshifteh Farahani’s performance as Sepideh is Hugo-worthy, as is the rest of the film. It would be criminal if they passed this film by, and festival goers will be sorry if they miss their chance to see About Elly.

  • HarryTuttle spoke:
    11th/10/2009 to 12:13 pm

    This is indeed a great film. I loved the previous one, Fireworks Wednesday, and this one confirms the high quality of this filmmaker. The tension is powerfully mastered throughout the film. You say it’s predictable, but it’s how the various characters handle each micro-situation change that matters, and how the social taboo related lies aggravates the problems even more the further they go…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/10/2009 to 9:20 pm

    Yes, I wasn’t looking at the predictability of the situations as a flaw. Instead, it helps to highlight the recognizable human emotions to situations we can relate to in some way.

  • Rod spoke:
    12th/10/2009 to 1:52 am

    Sounds like L’Avventura with hijabs.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/10/2009 to 8:19 am

    Rod, I actually did think about L’Avventura a lot, which I imagine most cinephiles who see this do. The atmosphere is not the same at all, however. Nonetheless, I do think it may owe some of its inspiration to that classic film.

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