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.
I only know that at the end of About Elly, which hit the festival circuit in ’09 but is only being released now, you’re left with a suspicion that some of these bummer frustrations and rebelled-against conventions may have played a part, faintly or not so faintly, in the disappearance of the the titular character, played by Taraneh Alidoosti.
Neither About Elly nor L’Avventura is a whodunit, as I’ve said a couple of times now, but by their conclusions there’s an unmistakable sense that both have seeped into and taken stock of the psychologies, values and cultures from whence they came.
About Elly is clean and straight and almost entirely pushed along by expositional dialogue. At first it seems as if everything that’s happening between the friends is fairly open and above-board, but that impression feels less acute soon after Elly disappears, and then it dissipates more and more as the film shifts into its second half. By the conclusion you don’t know much more about what happened to Elly than you did at the midway point, but you know a lot more about the kind of life that she lived and the forces that were pressing in upon her.
It’s an education, this film, and a bit of a psychological eye-opener in more than one sense, and unmistakably the sort of film that sinks in and sticks to your ribs and leaves you with all kinds of after-thoughts and after-aromas. That’s always the hallmark of a world-classer.
This is the third Farhadi film I’ve seen so far, and to be fair about it I’d have to rank it just behind A Separation and just ahead of The Past. And I’m a huge fan of the latter film, which I first saw at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
About Elly is now at Manhattan’s Film Forum. It opens in Miami and Santa Fe, N.M. on 5.1, and then in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington on May 8th, and in Atlanta, San Francisco and San Jose on May 22nd.