Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly” is a masterful study in group dynamics. Farhadi, who hails from Iran, established himself as an up-and-coming auteur with “A Separation” — the 2011 film that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. With “About Elly,” made two years prior to “A Separation” though just now receiving a U.S. release, layers of intrigue and social commentary reveal the makings of a brilliant director.
The film begins simply enough: A group of young, middle-class Iranians takes off for a vacation on the Caspian Sea. The trip appears to have been orchestrated by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who’s also brought her toddler daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), along for the ride. The other couples welcome the newcomer into their midst, all the while acknowledging the real reason Elly’s there: to be introduced to Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a visiting friend of Sepideh’s from Germany.
Farhadi’s mastered the intimation, the suggestion of something about to go seriously awry. From the film’s outset, Farhadi establishes Elly as the quietest one in the bunch. As the beach vacation commences and the friends let loose, however, her behavior borders on the bizarre — she makes a phone call and tells her mother, on the other end, to lie about her whereabouts; the men’s antics, though good-natured, visibly perturb her; she insists upon leaving the beach for Tehran after only one night. The apparent divide between Elly and the rest of the group comes to a head when Elly, already an unassuming presence, disappears. One of the couple’s children is found, floating and unconscious, in the sea. Sepideh and her friends quickly realize that Elly has either drowned in the process of going after the boy or returned home to Tehran without goodbyes.
Like so many good filmmakers, Farhadi embeds subtle details of plot and character in every scene of the film — an errant look or seemingly benign word, spoken out of place, has resounding repercussions later in the film. It’s in this way that “About Elly” offers a nuanced cultural critique.The political underpinnings of the film — women’s rights, marriage — are slyly hinted at through muted conversations and sidelong glances. In the context of a mystery, Farhadi’s breadcrumb trail is particularly satisfying for the observant spectator.
Just as effective is Farhadi’s choice and manipulation of setting. An abandoned beach villa with no cellphone signal quickly becomes a black box of sorts, as the vacationing cast of characters finds its movements confined to a few unfurnished rooms and a strip of sandy coastline. There’s no better time or place than this to explore the dramatic potential of cabin fever. The limited possibilities that dictate Elly’s fate — drowning or early departure — do not make her case more solvable but actually render it all the more frustrating for those involved. Accusations fly as the adults attempt to justify their own roles in a young boy’s near-drowning. Sepideh becomes the fulcrum of their finger-pointing (as vacation planner and near-matchmaker, she’s conspicuously entangled), though she appears to be as clueless as everyone else. The friends’ formerly jovial outing quickly turns completely sour; their interactions go from gleeful to grim as they begin, reluctantly, to unravel the details of a woman’s apparent death.
The film’s pacing does dance a fine line between deliberate and slightly delayed. In two hours, Farhadi tries to keep his characters — and his audience — fruitfully occupied. Towards the end of the second hour, however, there is a sense of relieved resolution as the pent-up confusions and frustrations of the vacation finally receive closure. Farahani, playing Sepideh, is perpetually teary-eyed for the latter half of the film. Though she is engaging, her principal expression of grief is a creased brow and tremulous voice, and there’s only so much of that a viewer can take in two hours.
But the nuances of Farahani’s performance are just background noise. True to form, this is a film about Elly: Elly’s friends, the fragility of friendships and love, women and marriage.
“About Elly” opens in theaters on May 22nd at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose.
Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.