I’m literally speechless…
If you’ve seen my review of The Past, then you know by now what I think of Asghar Farhadi. Despite having only been introduced to his films via A Separation a few years ago, I think with just his two latest films that he’s established himself as one of the great modern writer/directors. He simply has an unmatchable talent when it comes to shaping natural and realistically sensitive portrayals of familial conflict, and I was convinced that he could do no wrong.
Then I heard news of About Elly, which was filmed before either A Separation or The Past, and released in its home country of Iran in 2009. It wouldn’t make its way stateside until six years later following the success of those two films, so you can bet I was impatient to finally see it. Frankly, this movie is sensational.
I know I’ve used buzz words like that to describe movies numerous times before, but this time, there’s no needless hyperbole behind those words. Little did I know that this movie would have so profound an impact on me, I would find it almost impossible to form a coherent review.
A small group of friends and family make their way from Tehran to vacation in a countryside villa for the holiday weekend. One of the guests is Elly, a schoolteacher, who has been invited at the insistence of the mother of one of her students. As the collection of visitors are having a fun time in blissful ignorance of more subtle events about to unravel, Elly mysteriously vanishes mid-trip, and as the tension of the situation increases, it isn’t long before accusations and secrets start boiling to the surface.
About Elly certainly shares in the same DNA as Farhadi’s following two films, showing a graceful evolution into the mold that those two films would later compliment. As I’ve said before, Farhadi’s most beneficial talent is his graceful writing of family drama, which isn’t as pronounced in its early stretches as it was in later films, but makes the most of its strengths in how it flawlessly builds up to those more heated moments. Much of the first half hour is devoted to very relaxing and lively interaction and jokes between friends, allowing us to get properly acquainted with the characters before plunging us into the more tense stretches later on. There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had just watching these people interact through random chats, bouts of silliness, and even games of charades, while also not ignoring the very uncomfortable feelings such things may stir in relative outsiders like Elly. After a while, you simply forget that these are actors, and just buy into the illusion that these are real people you’re watching.
However, this peace cannot last. After a surprisingly intense ocean sequence, the film kicks into high gear and sees Farhadi working at the peak of his abilities. As always, one of Farhadi’s signature themes is of the consequence of actions. With numerous arguments and differing opinions being tossed around, it becomes a tricky evaluation of how best to proceed following each new revelation around Elly’s mysterious disappearance. Even quick judgments become increasingly common. This group barely knows a thing about her, including the very person who invited her, so it’s smart of the film to sit back and analyze the mindset of each character, whether Elly’s vanishing is the matter of blind-selfishness and lack of honor, or something purely accidental. It begs the question of just how much we truly know those around us, but is also critical of another side to the situation… hypocrisy.
More than ever, Farhadi’s analysis of secrets takes a crucial role in About Elly’s thematic constructs. As secrets become uncovered, it paints even more uncomfortable an image of who Elly really was as a person, but the film goes beyond her painted in an unfavorable image, to the point of the family being painted just as unfavorably. I can’t reveal why without giving significant portions away, but the film increasingly becomes very saddening in the lengths to stretch truths and retain one’s own self-preservation, even if it may come at the expense of someone who was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. It’s a morally gray center of the film that has no easy or clear cut answer, with varying responses of empathy to vitriol, but still retains the sensitive attention to detail that makes Farhadi the artist that he is.
This is even further highlighted by how the performances turn out. First things first, Golshifteh Farahani gives one of my favorite performances in any movie ever. When we’re introduced to her, she comes across as a very likable and kind-hearted soul. Maybe a bit abrasive to her friend, as well as frequently trying to get her together with one of the other group members, but still very well-meaning. However, as the later revelations of the film come into play, the at once well-meaning morality of the character comes into questionable attention. As the film progresses, the way we see this character isn’t quite as innocent as we once assumed, but it’s to Farahani’s credit that she excels at still retaining a key sense of empathy to the character, as well as the guilt that such a person may be forced to live with for the parts they play. Taraneh Alidoosti makes what select screen time she has as Elly especially impactful, hiding a lot of pent up anguish and secrecy behind her enigmatic presence, leaving a haunting shadow over the rest of the film that follows. The many supporting players are all terrific as well, with not a single weak link to be found.
Bottom line, when all is said and done, About Elly is a phenomenal experience, officially ranking as one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. From the second this movie began, I was entranced. I was charmed by every moment of wit and playfulness, shocked by every new realization, utterly enthralled by every tense build up, engaged with every fully-dimensional character, driven to sadness by the haunting grief it put me through, always waiting to see what would come around the corner next, and the second that it was over, I immediately wanted to experience it all over again. As far as I'm concerned, this film not only cements Farhadi as the best writer/director in movies right now, but ranks him among the all time great filmmakers.
It unsurprisingly earns my highest accolades. So, if you haven’t seen it yet... what are you waiting for?
Watch it! Right now! Go! Seriously…
GO WATCH IT RIGHT N-
***** / *****