Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 15, 2015 6:38 am 
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Tangled web

Recent release of an earlier film by Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) is a confirmation of his talent. But while The Past takes Iranians to France, About Elly in contrast is even more deeply rooted in Iran's retro culture than his last film shot in Iran, A Separation. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker describes the film's effect this way: "As the plot proceeds, we get an unnerving sense that the whole film, whose early stages bore such a modern and liberated ease, is gradually re-rooting itself in old, tenacious beliefs—in a world where honor and shame run deeper than the mere matter of whether a person is alive or dead." Surely Farhadi is aware of this odd disparity and the events in this film are meant to dramatize the way Persian bourgeois society is only half westernized.

Actually the disparity shows up right away in the different way the two sexes dress. The men are casual in T shirts; but even at a seaside resort the women are all in the long scarves of the hijab -- signaling their special status despite the comfortable means and the casual talk.

Another striking thing the Variety and Hollywood Reporter critics note in their reviews is the way -- under pressure of rigid tradition, the role of women, strict codes of politeness -- there is a great need to lie when a crisis arises. In the tumultuous and sad events described in About Elly, the truth must struggle to come out.

This is the story of a young woman's misguided amateur matchmaking effort and the tragic accident that cuts it short. Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is a shy, attractive young woman brought to a Caspian retreat with group of upper middle class Iranian couples with small children from Teheran, former classmates. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is the would-be matchmaker, and the only person in the group who knows Elly, as the teacher of her child. It turns out she doesn't know much more about Elly than that. Sepideh brings Elly to meet Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), their friend who lives in Germany, who's on a ten-day visit hoping to find an Iranian wife to replace the German one who's just divorced him.

The group has come to the sea for a long weekend, but it turns out the house Sepideh reserved is only available for the first night, so with the help of a local couple they take another place that's bigger and right on the sea, even though it's in need of cleaning and hasn't any beds. They settle in nonetheless. The evening that follows is pleasant. There is fun, kebab, and charades. Ahmad likes Elly. As acted and filmed, all this is rather stagey and theatrical, but the ensemble work is nonetheless fine. The mood is infectious; the action comes to life. Even the kids play charades. It's quite charming. There's a sense of blitheness and innocence. And of comfort. Elly is a little on the outside, but present, her teaching experience a help with the kids. And Ahmad definitely likes her.

The mood shifts the next day, and the film turns into a thriller and a mystery that can't help reminding one of Antonioni's L'Avventura. To begin with Elly insists to the disappointed and protesting Sepideh that she could only stay one day, and now absolutely must return to Tehran. If no one will give her transportation she will walk. Sepideh does all she can to dissuade her, even hiding her bag.

Then, after Elly has been playing with the children down by the beach and flying a kite, a small boy drifts out into the water and is almost drowned. General panic insues. At first they don't see the boy. Then he's spotted, and someone swims out and brings him back. Fortunately, he is okay. In the wild confusion that accompanies this -- the moment when the film seems most deft and accomplished -- Elly disappears. They can't find her. Did she walk off? Did she drown trying to save the child? No one knows. Then it becomes clear even Sepideh knows nothing about her, not even her last name. They do find her cell phone, though. They can call her mother, but can't tell her anything, because they know she has a heart condition and could not stand a shock. They call the first name after that, and get someone who says he's her brother. But she had told Sepideh she was an only child. Someone is to meet with him. People want to go home, but the group pulls together.

And this is where the tangled web of speculations, interrogations, and above all of lies begins to spin out, and when what Sepideh has done and caused Elly to do emerges as, to local eyes, far more awful than we as westerners would imagine. About Elly seems for a while like L'Avventura, but is resolved more conventionally. It doesn't leave things dangling in a teasing mystery. The energy built up in the early section that climaxes with the near-drowning scare and the disappearance of Elly subsides. There's a certain letdown. On the other hand, there's a nice sense that this group represents a society. Some of the acting is broad and stagey, some of the earlier action could be trimmed down, and some of the camera handling is shakier than need be, but Farhadi makes the group pulsate with energy and individual life in a wonderful way.

About Elly/درباره الی (Darbareye Elly), 119 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2009; many other festivals. Theatrical release in Iran and France 2009 (AlloCiné press rating 3.9), UK 2012; US release by Cinema Guild 8 April 2015 (Metacritic rating 87). Opening on 22 May 2015 in Northern California at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose.

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