Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review: "About Elly"

Director: Asghar Farhadi
Runtime: 119 minutes

Pitched somewhere between the ghostly mysteries of Gone Girl and Under the Sand, and the existential malaise of L'Avventura, About Elly is another stunner from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. And even though Elly isn't technically Farhadi's most recent film, it nonetheless represents a step forward after 2013's meandering The Past. Though less pummeling in its verbal intensity than A Separation, About Elly is a steadily absorbing drama that hauntingly captures the consequences of seemingly tiny deceptions.

When Farhadi finished making About Elly, he was still several years away from taking home an Oscar for 2011's A Separation. Yet despite the former film's strong reputation and success on the festival circuit, Farhadi's (by the rest of the world) 09 film, his third feature is only now landing stateside. So, if you've been keeping track of the film since the beginning, you've had quite the wait. Whether you consider the film a member of the class of 09 or the class of 15, it belongs among the best. 

Plot-wise, Elly most closely mimics the above-mentioned Antonioni classic: a group of middle class (more emphasis on the middle in Farhadi's film) friends enjoy a relaxing weekend until one member of their party vanishes. In this case, the missing person is the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidootsi), a teacher in the company of one her student's parents, as well as their friends. Though Elly is often quite shy, she mostly gets along with her fellow vacationers. That is, until she's left to watch several of the children on the beach, and disappears, resulting in one couple's child almost drowning. 

When About Elly begins, Farhadi floods the screen with names and faces and voices. Like Elly, we feel a bit lost, even amid such charming company. Gradually, the names and faces sort themselves out, leading to a lovely scene where the ensemble plays a clumsy game of charades. This scene, fully of joking and merriment, is totally sincere, yet also cleverly deceptive. It's at this point when Farhadi shares some warmth between characters and audience members. And's also the point where the noose is stealthily dropped around one's neck. 

After gently easing the viewer in the lives of his characters, Farhadi's big moment comes in and hits like a ton of bricks. The vanishing/near-drowning sequence is wrenching, white-knuckle material, directed with great energy without slipping into mawkishness. Though About Elly continues at a steady pace, Farhadi's writing tightens that damn noose nudge by nudge, and it's riveting to witness on both an intellectual and emotional level. 

Like A Separation, About Elly could have easily been produced as a play, yet the director knows how to open his material up enough so that it can benefit from cinematic techniques. Set almost entirely in a crumbling seaside villa, the film gets considerable mileage out of characters navigating their idyllic getaway/hellish psychological prison. The villa is hardly a visually pleasing locale, but Farhadi and cinematographer Hossein Jafarian turn it into an exquisitely dynamic space as the various and sundry secrets and lies spill forward. One of the most satisfying traits of Farhadi's work is that, at its best, it acts as both an honest representation of modern Iran and a compelling, self-contained narrative. These two sides are understandably linked together, yet About Elly's script is able to elegantly weave social commentary in narrative, and vice versa. 

And as much credit as the man in the director's chair deserves, it would be silly to downplay the achievements of the ensemble. Though Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), Elly's friend (...kinda), comes closest to main character status, About Elly is an ensemble piece at its core. The various couples (and the lone bachelor) gradually emerge as distinct personalities, and the actors all fit seamlessly into Farhadi's style. Farahani comes across as the most complex, given her connections to the missing woman of the hour, but everyone who appears on screen justifies their presence and involvement. Peyman Moadi, the phenomenal lead of A Separation, is just one of About Elly's many stellar performances that sharpens the impact of Farhadi's film to such a fine point. 

To watch a cast like this work with such harrowing, articulate material is a thing of rare beauty: each face is distinct, yet in each one we can see the entire film. Farhadi's film is most certainly about Elly, but also about each of every one of the lives affected by a deceptively simple vanishing act. Was it an act of selfish liberation or a heartbreaking tragedy? With its haunting final scenes, Farhadi suggests that, like the other elements of his film, the answer lies in the maddening void somewhere in between.

Grade: A

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