Asghar Farhadi‘s masterful About Elly is a little bit like Michelangelo Antonioni‘s L’Avventura (’60) in that both are about a fetching, somewhat unknowable woman who disappears during a sea-air vacation among a group of liberal-minded friends in their 30s and 40s. Both films are less about what happened to the woman than the cultural values (or a lack thereof in the case of L’Avventura) that linger and fester and are studied in her absence. Both are about “now that she’s gone, who the fuck are we?”
The Antonioni was about ennui and nothingness among existential brooders while the Farhadi is mainly focused on the rigidity of Iranian cultural codes and feelings of repression and social imprisonment among some of the women. That’s how I took it, at least.
The main difference, as noted, is that Farhadi’s Iranians are living within a social system that is more or less fixed and patriarchal, and which requires obediance and even certain kinds of punishment when rules are ignored, and yet there are genuine feelings of caring and loyalty and compassion among the vacationers. Except in the case of an older, bitter husband, there’s a passionate sense of local ethics and morality here. It’s considered shocking, for one example, that a woman who was unhappily engaged to a man she didn’t love and was looking to dump would take part in a weekend vacation as a single woman…forgive us, God!
And yet in some ways these people, all from Tehran, seem just as bored and particular and frustrated and vaguely bummed out about their day-to-day as Antonioni’s Italians were over 50 years ago.