ABOUT ELLY (Darbareye Elly) A-
Iran France (119 mi) 2009 d: Asghar Farhadi
Iran France (119 mi) 2009 d: Asghar Farhadi
Asghar Farhadi is one of the few major Iranian directors that still makes films in Iran, a nation where literally dozens of filmmakers have been arrested and released under the Ahmadinejad regime, as Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, along with filmmaker and actress Mahnaz Mohammadi, remain imprisoned for political differences, their passports revoked, banned from making future movies, while legendary Iranian New Wave directors Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf work in exile. It’s a significant paradox that Farhadi has been free to serve on juries for major international film festivals, and even win major prizes himself, including his highly acclaimed A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (2011), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (also nominated for Best Original Screenplay), becoming the highest grossing Iranian film ever made (listed as #40 foreign language movie of all-time, Foreign Language Movies at the Box Office - Box Office Mojo) and the first Iranian to win an Academy Award in any competitive category, while his compatriots languish in prison. We are reminded that in September 2010 during the making of A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), which due to past film successes was made without any governmental support, Farhadi was banned from making the film by the Iranian Ministry of Culture, as during earlier acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, he expressed support for Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an exiled Iranian filmmaker living at the time in Afghanistan, and imprisoned political filmmaker Jafar Panahi, both of whom are linked to the Iranian Green Movement that questioned the validity of the 2009 Iranian Presidential election, demanding the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office. The ban was lifted a month later after Farhadi apologized for his remarks and claimed to be inaccurately perceived. While certainly considered one of the most important directors of the 90’s, the Iranian government has long refused to permit the screening of any Kiarostami film for well over a decade, causing him to remark, “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past 10 years... I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out. They tend to support films that are stylistically very different from mine – melodramas” ("Abbas Kiarostami – Not A Martyr", Stuart Jeffries from The Guardian, April 26, 2005), which begs the question, why is Farhadi still visibly working in Iran while others have disappeared or been silenced? The Past (Le Passé) (2013) was even partially financed by Iran. Perhaps it’s a matter of economics, as his films continue to make money, seemingly at odds with arthouse filmmakers who have other priorities. That being said, ABOUT ELLY is only belatedly having an international release six years after it premiered to considerable acclaim at the Berlin Festival in 2009 where Farhadi won a Silver Bear for Best Director, winning dozens of other awards as well, but it was mysteriously shelved afterwards, as an earlier distributor that acquired the film apparently went out of business. It’s curious that this film’s public introduction comes “after” his two earlier films drew such heavy international praise, where one of them surprisingly became the most successful film in Iranian film history.
When seen in this context, how ironic that the film with the least amount of accompanying accolades is arguably this director’s best film. This may be the closest Farhadi has come to emulating Jafar Panahi, where Western elements creep into an Iranian film, whose CRIMSON GOLD (2003) mixes the stylization of Iranian social realism with a European art film, actually paying tribute to Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957). In similar fashion, ABOUT ELLY borrows liberally from Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), a film where Italian neo-realism comes face to face with contemporary modern society, a brooding interior film that expresses extreme emotional alienation through slow pacing, narrative ambiguity, and extraordinary visual stylization. In each, a large degree of the film’s success can be attributed to the brilliance of the character development, where multiple figures literally come to life onscreen, becoming familiar to us all by the end of the picture. While Antonioni creates spaces between characters through silences or long wordless sequences, Farhadi takes a more collective approach, creating a group dynamic that is reflective of a casual self-interest mindset when one member of a group of friends goes mysteriously missing during a weekend trip to the Caspian Sea. Intent on examining the fractured and hypocritical culture of the middle-class, Farhadi conceals their underlying motives throughout most of the film before allowing them to erupt in emotional fireworks during an explosive finale. An essay-like comment on contemporary times, ABOUT ELLY also accentuates the extreme degree of alienation from rapidly changing cultural norms, exposing utter indifference to the social injustice of women, whose powerlessness leaves them even further isolated from the mainstream, their lives dominated and completely controlled by the arrogance and paternalistic whims of selfishly deluded men, revealing just how completely out of touch they are with their wives and female counterparts who are all but invisible to them. The stark divide is a breathtaking surprise, a social critique beautifully revealed through unraveling layers of seemingly innocuous conversations that become dramatically intensified, ultimately a distinctively evolving passion play that reaches heights of hysteria, dramatically expressed with a great deal of clarity, though this only becomes evident by the end. Farhadi’s true strength is his writing, and while there are nearly a dozen featured characters, the naturalism of their performances really serves the overall outcome. Much like a stage play, though expressed with utter simplicity, the speed and rhythm of the conversational interplay between characters must reflect the overall mood changes of a very complicated social dynamic, where it’s essential they be viewed as believable and authentic. The success of this film is that all the movable parts contribute to the whole, where what’s lurking under the surface, seemingly benign and of little consequence, has a powerful impact that in the end provides a stunning societal exposé.
The film begins innocently enough, as a group of middle-class friends, old classmates from the university, set out for a relaxing weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea, three married couples and their young children, including Sepideh, Golshifteh Farahani from My Sweet Pepper Land (2013), who organized the trip, who brings along Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, while also inviting a male friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who recently separated from his wife and is visiting from Germany. While the boisterous mood remains upbeat, with plenty of music and chatter, the overriding feeling is one of exuberance, expressing the joy of being young and happy, shot in a cinéma vérité style, where the audience is exposed to wave after wave of overlapping conversations. Not to be deterred, despite being full for the holidays, the group is offered a seaside villa with broken windows and no beds that hasn’t been fixed up yet, but the charm of the nearby sea is inviting. Playing charades, singing songs, or spontaneously breaking out into dance, it’s a celebratory atmosphere with plenty of food brought in for the occasion. While Elly is admittedly shy and reluctantly hesitant, there’s a bit of matchmaking going on behind the scenes, which is all in good fun, where they’re playfully introduced as young newlyweds to the rental owners to avoid any hint of scandal. Nonetheless, with things seemingly going well, Elly is admittedly uncomfortable and seeks to leave early, spoiling the fun for Sepideh who encourages her to stay. While the women are out buying food and the men are having a strenuous volleyball match on the beach, Elly is watching the kids, seen in a state of ecstasy while flying a kite, but then Sepideh’s daughter frantically cries out for help as one of the other children has gone out too far and is being carried out to sea, creating an panic-stricken moment of hysteria where all the adults run and jump into the water without a clue where he is. Fortunately, after a delirious search, the child is safely rescued, but then they notice Elly has disappeared, where no one knows what happened to her. Unsure whether she drowned or returned home on her own, suddenly the film takes on a more sinister mood, where they have to get their stories straight before calling the police, as they don’t wish to be implicated. Self-preservation overrides any sense of honor in the face of tragedy, as each begins looking out for themselves, pointing their fingers at others, trying any way they can to escape blame. It’s a sad and pathetic situation when they literally turn on one another, like sharks with blood in the water, with husbands blaming wives, claiming they should have been watching the kids, not some stranger whose last name they don’t even know, fearing how this might ruin their reputations and good social standing. A carefree vacation of best friends turns into a desperate moment of panic, fear, and outright suspicion. In no time it grows even more complicated, like a house of cards imploding on itself, where a protracted series of lies meant to spare someone emotional grief only escalates, reaching a level of emotional hysteria previously unseen in Iranian films. Relying heavily on suspense, Farhadi unspools this extraordinary drama in sophisticated fashion, first creating the unsettled, murky waters of suspicion and distrust, then critiquing the morality of patronizing, overzealous social conventions while also exploring the male/female dynamic in modern Iran. It’s a masterful effort that moves from the sunny comforts of Èric Rohmer territory to the dark psychological realms of Hitchcockian suspense.