About Elly, drama, not rated, in Persian with subtitles, The Screen, 4 chiles
One thing that will strike you as you watch this riveting drama of well-intended lies and unintended consequences is how normal it seems. Not the story, which is intricate and tightly woven. No, it’s the people. They’re young middle-class Iranians, spending a weekend away from Tehran at a beachside bungalow on the Caspian Sea. But remove the headscarves and the Persian language, and this could easily be happening in the Hamptons. An unmistakable takeaway of Asghar Farhadi’s masterful thriller is to make it abundantly clear to American viewers that — guess what? — Iranians are a lot like us. The probable audience for a movie like this may not need much convincing, but there should be a required screening for Bibi Netanyahu and the U.S. Congress. Farhadi is the Iranian director who copped an Oscar in 2012 with A
Separation, his masterful dissection of class and gender politics in modern Iran. About Elly was made three years earlier, and while it won festival prizes at the time, including Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, it hasn’t found U.S. distribution until now.
A group of young married friends and their kids arrive at their seaside destination to discover that, due to a mix-up, the place they had taken the year before is unavailable. Instead, they are given a dilapidated house on the beach, which they gamely undertake to make habitable. The mix-up was avoidable. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), wife of Manoocher (Ahmad Mehranfar) and organizer of the weekend, knew of the problem but was confident she could work it out when they got there.
Sepideh is at the heart of everything that happens, and everything that goes wrong. She’s a congenital spinner of white lies designed to make things smoother, and an incorrigible manager and manipulator. She is also beautiful and charming, so she usually gets away with it.
For this weekend, she has invited Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), her daughter’s teacher, with the design of making a match with Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a recently divorced friend. This plan requires a series of lies, which Sepideh throws off effortlessly. But they come back to haunt her.
Elly is clearly uncomfortable in the situation, and after the first night she wants to leave. Sepideh won’t hear of it. While Sepideh is out at the store, one of the other women asks Elly to watch the children on the beach while she goes inside. A little later, a child screams that a little boy is drowning. There is a harrowing rescue. And when the crisis settles, Elly is nowhere to be found. Has she drowned? Has she left?
Farhadi sows the questions and builds the tension as more lies and complications emerge, and the situation spirals into a nightmare of doubt and fear. His cast is terrific, with special kudos to Farahani’s conflicted Sepideh. For film buffs, the story will murmur echoes of Antonioni’s L’Avventura. But Farhadi makes it into something all his own.
In an NPR interview, he made it clear that showing the similarity of Iranians and Westerners was an intentional thrust of his film. “I don’t want to become a political spokesman; that’s not what I do,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker. But whenever possible in my films, if I can allow people to understand each other and for cultures to come together, I would do that.”
Pretty please: Golshifteh Farahani