The film tells the story of a group of young university friends from Teheran who take a three-day break at a Caspian beach resort in the north of Iran. Ahmad is back in Iran after many years living in Germany, where he had recently got divorced, and his best friend Sepideh is attempting to set him up with Elly, her daughter’s nursery school teacher. The friends, realizing why Sepideh has invited Elly, pay her particular attention and laud her qualities. On the second day an incident occurs which leads to Elly’s disappearance. The joyful atmosphere evaporates as the friends try to understand how and why she disappeared. The friends become judgmental and try to find fault with Elly’s character. The group’s opinion of Elly veers away from that of the first day, until at last the truth is out.
Apart from some of Dariush Mehrjui and Tahmineh Milanie’s films, Asghar Farhadi’s Silver Bear and Tribeca-winning film About Elly, are a rare example of Iranian films that show the modern face of Iran and some aspects of its educated middle-class life to a western audience, making it a relative departure from the normal subjects of an Iranian art film. The young, educated and middle-class travellers in the film are somewhat of an unknown demographic to a western audience, and are more commonly portrayed in popular Iranian films, as art films tend to present the more ‘exotic’ lifestyles of the lower and working class. On the other hand the film’s use of features such as the roving camera, overlapping dialogues, and its thinly veiled plot has a cinema-vérité style that almost echoes that of Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, something that is not commonly seen in Iranian cinema. Another fine example of this style is Rachael Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2009) which opened the ‘65th Venice International Film Festival’.
The cast of the film, who are mostly professional actors in Iranian cinema, tended to underplay their roles and the camera almost never closes in on their faces, picturing them often in long or medium shot. Even Elly, the main character of the film, is rarely the point of focus of the camera’s attention and is often seen in a crowd or in the margins of the frame. This technique is reminiscent of the unique style of John Cassavetes, which Farhadi skilfully employs in this film.
About Elly concerns itself with issues of moral behavior, lies and gender relations, rather than aiming to convey political messages, as in films like No One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi) and Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat). All three films were screened at the ‘London Film Festival’ in 2009. It is about the most simplistic yet the most significant attitudes within today’s Iranian society, which is presented without frills or exaggeration. Farhadi’s directing and the way the cast performs is so subtle that it becomes unnoticeable. He showed this remarkable storytelling and directing technique in his previous film Chaharshanbe-soori/Fireworks Wednesday (2006). From the very first sequence, the viewer is put alongside the actors and accompanies them on this hellish journey, the kind that starts with laughter and ends in tears.
The first shot of the film, taken from inside a charity contribution box, invites the audience into the dark world that lies therein, and the thin strip of light which seeps into the darkness of the box metaphorically ties in with the rest of the plot and foreshadows the tragedy to come. The film starts with a comedic and buoyant vibe with games, jokes, banter, and vulgar male dancing (the women in the film do not join in the dance, preferring to watch their husbands instead) but suddenly develops a bitter and disturbing tone when one of the boys (Arash) drowns in the sea and Elly vanishes.
Elly’s character (played by Taraneh Alidousti) is vastly different to the rest of the group. She is a sweet, shy, and reticent nursery school teacher, and the subject of Sepideh’s matchmaking game (she was persuaded onboard by the insistence and excessive pleading of Sepideh). She is often reluctant to join in with the joviality of the group and is close to going home. Her character is not revealed explicitly. Farhadi made her mysterious and ambiguous by avoiding giving information about her background and motives. This ambiguity results in an immense level of suspense which climaxes with Elly’s sudden disappearance.
The main approach of the film is the pathology of individual attitudes among the middle-class educated people in Iran. The film thematically concentrates on lies and pre-judgements. Most of the people in the group lie to each other without any specific reason. Even Elly, who is seen as more of a decent and innocent girl, asks her mother over the phone to lie about the happenings of their trip to the north. Sepideh, played beautifully by Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies), makes the situation more complicated by lying about Elly’s identity from the start, but she develops self-awareness when she realizes how great a negative affect her lying had on Elly’s life. About Elly shows how simple lies and pre-judgments about others can have important consequences and can even ruin lives. Lying is bound with the souls of the film’s characters to an extent that we do not even believe that Alireza is Elly’s fiancé. Therefore when he goes to the morgue to identify the corps of a drowned woman we are in doubt that he is telling the truth when he confirms that the woman is Elly, or he is another liar that tries to get rid of the whole mess.
Despite the similarity of About Elly’s plot with L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni), it is more a Hitchcockian film using Elly’s disappearance as a McGuffin in order to reach a more dramatic climax in the film. From this point of view, About Elly is a psychological social drama with a crime thriller’s suspense, but Farhadi knowingly avoids the excitement of a crime thriller and instead concentrates on the ethical and psychological effects of Elly’s disappearance on the members of the group. He did not, for example, show the involvement of the local police in tracking down the reason for Elly’s disappearance. Instead Farhadi gives Elly’s companions the opportunity to judge Elly’s personality, and speculate as to the cause of her disappearance and consequently reveal their own personal traits and moral weaknesses. With its intelligent, precise directing and the commendable acting effort of its cast, About Elly is without a doubt one of the pre-eminent Iranian films made in recent years.