There has always been a steady interest in the alternative, art house, academic-minded film circles for Iranian cinema, but more widespread investment in the nationality as it pertains to movies has existed in the Western world only in select cases. Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most prominent talents, turning his focus in recent years outside his homeland in films like the Tuscany-set “Certified Copy” and “Like Someone in Love,” which takes place in Tokyo.
Director Jafar Panahi reached widespread notoriety a few years ago because he was sanctioned under decades-long house arrest for the pure fact of his moviemaking—though still managed to co-direct 2012’s “This Is Not a Film” and one of the best films of last year, “Closed Curtain,” from the confines of his own home.
The other hottest name in current Iranian filmmaking is Asghar Farhadi, whose divorce drama “A Separation” was much-touted as an American critics’ and awards’ favorite upon its stateside release in 2011. While “A Separation” was Farhadi’s first significant release for a majority of U.S. audiences, the director had made four features before his heralded tale of a splintering family unit and their complex life choices regarding their child and an ailing parent.
The film Farhadi made directly preceding “A Separation,” entitled “About Elly,” was released in Iran, France, and other countries in 2009 but is not receiving its official U.S. release until now, in April 2015 (the filmmaker has made one film since “A Separation”: “The Past,” which released in 2013 in the U.S.).
“About Elly” is similar to previous Farhadi endeavors in its theatricality, centering itself around a single event or mysterious question through which a host of familial struggles, long-kept secrets, and crescendos of emotion are uncovered. In this case, the scenario involves a group of eight adult friends on vacation together at a seaside villa in northern Iran.
Whilst dining together, joking around, playing Pictionary, the group—three couples and two singles, Elly and Ahmad— begins to act casually irresponsibly with their children, who tend to frolic on the rocky waters’ edges, and as a result, devastating questions unfold in a chain of sudden events.
“The Past,” Farhadi’s most recent U.S. release prior to “About Elly,” sometimes suffered from its melodramatic grandiosity—as precise as was Farhadi’s direction, and as humanistic and sensitive as were his actors’ performances, the scope of the film, spanning years and continents, had a way of emboldening the screenplay’s defects, feeling too rote and structured. “About Elly,” however, eschews such overt dramatics by virtue of being set entirely in one place, save for a few trips to a shopping mall or grocery store in the outside world.
Rather than overplay how far-reaching the implications of the film’s events and morally-contemplative conversations are, Farhadi’s film is instead perfectly scaled to its subject matter. A small event and a tiny miscalculation have grave, impactful consequences in Farhadi’s world, and because the events of the film are contained to the villa and its immediate topographical surroundings, we see the rippling, cataclysmic effects of “About Elly[’s]” narrative reverberate between characters and within the hampered consciences of individuals.
The surprising proceedings enliven new, unseen dynamics between couples, and fascinatingly reduce certain characters to their most instinctual and grossly reptilian states.
As “About Elly” moves along, it becomes a “Ran”-like display of a series of conflicting, highly personalized testimonials about the same event. Each of the characters have a story they wish to spin, a personal difficulty or frustration that has been unleashed, and Farhadi does a skillful job of granting his characters each a specific cinematic point of perspective while letting the film remain naturalistic.
There are two bookending inventorial scenes in which a character goes through the cast, asking each group member their ‘yay or nay’ answer to a pressing question, the first a good deal more trivial than the last. In addition, in a crucial moment in the film, the entire main cast stands tensely on the beach as a boat speeds toward the shore. Before the contents of the boat are revealed—to us or the characters—Farhadi brilliantly surveys each actor’s face in urgent close-up, building tension and developing the emotional stakes, one by one, in elegant tableaus.
Tension in the film is also evoked by the constant roar of the ocean on the film’s soundtrack, which takes the place of a traditional orchestral score and is even commented on by Shohreh (Merila Zare’i): “The sound of the sea drives me crazy.” To these characters, the sound of water flowing has an insidious, and thoroughly guilt-inducing ring.
Farhadi’s screenplay and direction allow scenes to assume a natural rhythm that lets compelling dynamics play out between characters believably, but some of his more daring shots, like the extended take of Elly poised, frozen, in the kitchen early on, or the series of takes of the eponymous woman flying a kite on the beach, radiate the romanticism of classic melodrama. The director’s fleet management of diverse tones makes “About Elly” a taut but recognizable work about small deviations of human error.