It took five years but finally the US distribution rights for Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly” were acquired bringing the highly acclaimed 2009 film to American theaters in 2015. These distribution wranglings and roadblocks are frustrating to say the least especially in this case. “About Elly” has received a ton of critical praise and has won numerous notable awards, yet it has lingered out of reach of many anxious cinephiles.
Farhadi, who I will go ahead and call one of the best international filmmakers going, has actually made two films since the release of “About Elly”, one being his searing Oscar-winning drama “A Separation”. You can see some of the same artistic strokes being used in both movies and the Iranian filmmaker’s soulful human explorations and subtle societal critiques are fundamental components to each. But at the same time “About Elly” differentiates itself in a variety of interesting ways while still maintaining Farhadi’s impeccable knack for mesmerizing and relevant storytelling.
One such difference can be found in the openings. “A Separation” begins with a tense and solemn meeting with a family court judge. A husband and wife are preparing to end 14 years of marriage. Contrast that with the opening of “About Elly”. The first scene shows friends playfully yelling out their car windows while driving through a highway tunnel. The group is heading to the Caspian Sea for fun-filled three-day vacation. Two drastically different scenarios yet over time Farhadi’s distinct signature can be seen on both.
With “About Elly” it’s definitely a case of ‘the less you know the better’. The film sets itself up by offering us introductions to the characters and showing their whimsical enthusiasm. After all, they’re on vacation. Everyone seems excited yet there is something different about Elly (eloquently played by Taraneh Alidoosti). She feels like a bit of an outsider – apprehensive and reserved. Turns out Elly was invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) in hopes that she would hit it off with recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini).
In a cagey bit of foreshadowing the group must navigate a mishap with their reservations which threatens to derail their vacation. In this brief sequence we get a handful of subtle clues which play into how things unfold. Things finally get back on track and they land a place to stay at a seaside villa. They get settled in, Elly remains a bit of a mystery, and everyone starts to have a good time. That is until a key moment sends Farhadi’s story spinning and his characters along with their relationships are seen under a new light.
There is a biting naturalistic harmony to Farhadi’s storytelling that uses plot twists and character complexities like pieces to an elaborate moral puzzle. At the same time, with every layer of the story that is peeled away we gain new insights into who these people are while also being challenged by various social critiques. Farhadi is never heavy-handed and he’s never preachy to the detriment of the story he’s telling.
Watching “About Elly” is a near hypnotic experience whether it’s the fascinating mystery akin to Antonioni’s brilliant “L’Avventura” or the stimulating character study/morality play that puts each character under a microscope. As with his previous work, Asghar Farhadi injects this film with such authenticity and truth. Not a single character feels fake. Not a single emotion feels false. Not a single plot point feels contrived. It’s truth that permeates this entire picture which is a little ironic. In the film it’s the truth that proves to be the hardest thing for the characters to embrace. Not so for Farhadi.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS