Monday, April 2, 2012

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Asghar Farhadi, "About Elly" (2009)

About Elly (Darbareye Elly). 2009. Written, directed, production and costume design by Asghar Farhadi. Cinematography by Hossein Jafarian. Edited by Hayedeh Safarian. Sound by Hassan Zahedi and Mohammad-Reza Delpak.

Cast: Golshifteh Farahani (Sepideh), Taraneh Alidoosti (Elly), Shahab Hosseini (Ahmad), Mani Haghighi (Amir), Merila Zarei (Shohreh), Peiman Ma'adi (Peyman), Ahmad Mehranfar (Manouchehr), Rana Azadivar (Nazzie), Saber Abar (Ali-Reza).

About Elly is a psychologically penetrating film in which a woman’s disappearance gives rise to all sorts of complex issues of morality (both within an Iranian context and without), and questions of culpability and responsibility for tragedy.  The film ever so subtly switches gears from an observational and lightly comic portrait of Iranian middle-class life to a much darker morality play, and astutely demonstrates how both of these modes can be two sides of the same coin.  The story begins innocently and benignly enough, as a group of university friends from Tehran go for a vacation at a beach house near the Caspian Sea, where they engage in various sorts of horseplay, games of charade, volleyball, and other activities, taking advantage of the holiday to shake off the constrictions of their workaday lives.  The group consists of a couple of married couples and their kids, as well as the title character, Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), a shy kindergarten teacher and an outsider to the group who is reluctantly dragged there by her friend Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), whose child is in Elly’s class.  Beneath the surface of this deceptively idyllic situation lies deceptions and secret personal agendas, beginning with Sepideh’s true purpose in bringing Elly on this trip: to set her up with Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorcee living in Germany who is now in Iran on a short visit, and in the market for a new wife.  When the rest of the group catches wind of Sepideh’s attempts at matchmaking, they join in on trying to bring the two together.  Elly resists, for reasons that are revealed only much later.

Farhadi proves to be quite adept at carefully controlling the tone of his film, and by so slowly and patiently setting up the situation and the complex nexus of relationships between the characters, he succeeds in deceiving the viewer as well, lulling us into the notion that this film will continue in this comic mode.  However, about 45 minutes or so into the film, the mood abruptly shifts gears when one of the children is swept out to sea while playing on the beach.  The child is eventually rescued, but an even more serious situation arises when Elly, who had been watching the children, herself goes missing.  At this point, the web of deceit tightens on all of the film’s characters, as all the lies, casual and serious, necessary and unnecessary, come back to haunt them, and the consequences of these lies are unforgiving.  Although some of the deceptions arise from particular proprieties necessary in Iranian society (for example, introducing Ahmad and Elly to the old woman who rents them the beach house as newlyweds), others are much more problematic and in many cases a function of serious breaches of ethics, committed in an attempt to save face or avoid problems with the police.  The brilliance of Farhadi’s script and direction (he won the Silver Bear for best director at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival) becomes most apparent in the later stages of the film, as he deftly maps out the shifts in the perceptions and behavior of the characters toward each other (as well as the viewer’s perception of the characters), as one secret after another is revealed.  Farhadi’s cast is uniformly excellent, especially Farahani, who compellingly registers Sepideh’s shock at how her seemingly innocent matchmaking has taken such a tragic turn, as well as the way her character, like others in the film, is revealed to not be what it initially appears.

About Elly screens on April 6 at 8:30pm, April 7 at 6:45pm, and April 8 at 1:30 at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective "Asghar Farhadi's Iran." Click here to purchase tickets.

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