Thankfully getting a belated American release, About Elly is a remarkable 2009 film by Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 feature, A Separation, deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This absorbing drama features a handful of friends who have planned to spend a weekend together. When there is a problem with the villa where they expected to stay, they decamp for a house by the seaside that requires some cleaning. Resigned to the new situation, the friends join together to adapt to the circumstances. The film slowly allows viewers to identify all of the characters and their relationships. One thing, however, is clear: Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has asked Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s teacher, to come along in the hopes that she might have a romantic interest in Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a divorced man who is living in Germany.
As the friends eat, joke, and play charades and volleyball, there is a genial atmosphere. However, Elly seems a bit tense and overwhelmed by everyone. The next day, an incident occurs involving Elly that recalibrates everything. It would perhaps spoil the pleasure and suspense of watching About Elly to disclose more. Suffice it to say, all of the characters must piece together events large and small to determine the cause and effects of what happened. As secrets are confessed and lies are revealed, the characters face a series of emotionally unbearable situations that show their true natures and engage viewers’ morality and sympathy.
Farhadi ably explores themes of guilt and honor, fate and morality as the characters express their anger and recriminations. The film, set mostly in the seaside villa, never feels stagey. Likewise, the symbols such as a kite flying free, a car stuck in the sand, or a character getting a splinter, never feel heavy-handed. This is because the director uses space—framing the characters in windows and doorways, in cars or on the rocky coast of the beach—to convey their emotional states. The sound of the waves lapping against the shore provides an appropriate soundtrack to the action; even if one character acknowledges how haunting the waves are.
About Elly is a slow-burning but engrossing drama that ratchets up the tension as a new character is introduced late in the film. His presence prompts the friends to admit the truth of their actions (and reactions) and take responsibility for their behavior. The consequences have ramifications for the characters, but the emotions will resonate with viewers.
The performances are uniformly strong, with Farahani a standout. But it is Farhadi’s exacting command of the material—from where he places the camera and how he lets the story unfold—that makes About Elly so gripping.
About Elly opens today at the Ritz Bourse.