[Film Review] About Elly (2009)

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English Title: About Elly
Original Title: Darbareye Elly
Year: 2009
Country: Iran, France
Language: Persian, German
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Writers: Asghar Farhadi, Azad Jafarian
Music: Andrea Bauer
Cinematography: Hossein Jafarian
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Cast:
Golshifteh Farahani
Shahab Hosseini
Payman Maadi
Mani Haghighi
Taraneh Alidoosti
Merila Zare’i
Ra’na Azadivar
Ahmad Mehranfar
Saber Abar
Rating: 8.2/10

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Iranian dramaturge Asghar Farhadi’s fourth picture, ABOUT ELLY is temporally condensed within a weekend sortie, and spatially confined around a seaside resort. 3 middle-class couples (each with their young children, numbers vary from two to naught), their visiting common friend Ahmad (Hosseini), an Iranian living in Germany and recently divorced, plus a fresh face, the titular Elly (Alidoosti), a young kindergarten teacher befriended by one of the wives, Sepideh (Farahani), who takes on the match-maker job to introduce her to Ahmad.

With the opening scene of a letterbox aperture wondrously morphing into a car streaking in the tunnel, Farhadi’s linear narrative gives audience no introduction of each main characters, so it is totally left upon us to inquisitively combs the interrelationships among the ensemble, and Farhadi sedulously leaves a few offhand details, such as, Elly intends to only stay one night, not the entire weekend.

After renting and cleaning an abandoned beach-front villa (helped by Sepideh’s white lie of claiming that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds spending their honeymoon, which will boomerang later, courtesy to Farhadi’s perspicacity), the group makes merry with barbecues and charades, punctuated with raillery aiming at the two singletons, with which only Elly seems a bit uncomfortable, although a mutual attraction burgeons, if tentatively.

The next day, after Sepideh insists that Elly should stay with them for the rest of the weekend, Elly is left taking care of the children, and is last seen by viewers flying a kite with a beaming smile. Then, an accident crops up (irresponsible grownups leaving a small child playing on the beach alone), in the wake of a frenetic rescue commotion, the baby survives, but Ally vanishingly disappears.

Two possible outcomes, Ally tries to save the child (technically the children are under her watch at then), and drowns, only her body hasn’t been discovered yet; or out of a pique, she leaves without notifying anyone (her holdall is hidden by Sepideh lest she leaves), guess how soon does one shift from the first to the second? Especially for Shohreh (Zare’i), the mother of the rescued child, it is far easier to blame a person’s dark side than facing the surging guilt stemmed from the fact that someone dies in attempting to save her child.

To make matters worse, soon they find out that no one knows Elly’s full name, and her prior behavior of hesitation and discomfiture may not merely because of her timidity, but a more thornier reason that only Sepideh knows, when Elly’s so-called brother Alireza (Abar) joins the game, a secret is detonated with a harrowing ripple effect, what writs large is Farhadi’s searing opprobrium of Iran’s entrenched patriarchy and its devastating influence on the women.

Prominently, it is Sepideh who takes the short end of the stick in the ensuing blame game pepped with recriminations and accusations, and surely an indelible guilt will haunt her for the rest of her life, but why she wants to help Elly in the first place? from the treatment she receives from her much older and fractious husband Amir (filmmaker Mani Haghighi), one might safely infer that she is driven more by an altruistic concern that doesn’t want Elly to end up like her, stuck in an imperfect marriage.

Farahani is electrifying alone in her final caving-in, helplessly and scathingly, she cannot rebel against the group’s democratic decision, even it is a young woman’s honor that is at stake, Alidoosti perfectly captures the elusive essence of a good-natured young girl crimped by her moral obligation, and for a shimmering instant, harboring a hope (a bitter end is better than endless bitterness) that only to be dashed moments later.

Among the stronger sex, Amir is portrayed as a selfish curmudgeon, who instantly takes on when the tragedy occurs, shows no consideration of his wife’s emotional state and hits out in full cry with a predisposition for physical violence (of course, he blames her to make him get physical); the johnny-come-lately Alireza can be epitomized as the younger generation indoctrinated by the same detrimental male chauvinism, all he cares about is his reputation as an affianced man, and his callous final glimpse betrays a tell-tale feeling that, to him, after forcing out an answer he can live up with, Elly is equivalent to a discarded object he has been investing for 3 years.

Fortunately, redeeming factors come from two other male characters, Hosseini’s Ahmad is almost reasonable to a fault, a perfect match to Elly, which only makes the whole shebang more depressing; then there is Peyman Maadi as the husband of Shohreh, who retains a clear conscience and Maadi gives a very animated performance whether in laidback or exigent circumstances. No wonder both are elevated to the leading roles in Farhadi’s later masterpieces, and ABOUT ELLY, a powerful moral examination through Farhadi’s all-embracing magnifying glass, is as astute a social critique as transfixing a drama underset with its cracking dramatis personae.

referential entries: Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011, 8.8/10), THE SALESMAN (2016, 7.5/10); Edward Yang’s THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH (1983, 7.4/10).

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