With both A Separation and The Past under his belt, Asghar Farhadi has proven himself to be one of the most formidable directors working today, rivaling Michael Haneke in presenting realism in contemporary film. Both filmmakers excel at presenting deeply unsettling events not uncommon in our day-to-day lives, like divorce or death. But where Haneke utilizes realism to draw out horror and dread from his viewers who know how real the situations on screen are, Farhadi paces his movies like a trial, where the central characters try to untangle a mystery presented before them, receiving every perspective from all parties. Through Farhadi’s meticulous construction and intricate plotting, he has not only created some of the best films of the new decade, but presented some of the most enthralling moral cases in modern cinema history.
About Elly, the director’s 2009 picture, has only just received U.S. distribution this year. If that caused any indication amongst Farhadi’s fans that About Elly was in any way inferior to the filmmaker’s recent work, think again; About Elly, like A Separation and The Past, shows a mature director dissecting the layers of human nature.
Whereas the two above-mentioned pictures tackled the theme of divorce, About Elly takes a different if just as dark turn. The film centers on a group of Iranian friends going to the Caspian Sea on vacation. The central characters bring along their young children as well as Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a teacher to one of the daughters. The trip serves as a reunion for the group and Elly, who reveals little about her background other than her ailing mother and her desire to return to Tehran quickly, stands as an outsider.
The first act of About Elly is largely upbeat, as the ensemble joke around about the past and play games inside while spending the afternoon lounging on the beach. But the mood drastically shifts when one of the character’s sons is trapped within the Caspian Sea’s waves. Farhadi stages the scene in pure chaos, as the group frantically search for the young boy trapped within the raging waters. Yet afterwards, Elly, who was watching the children play by the water, has disappeared, leaving no clue on where she has headed, leaving the deadly question of whether she had left the villa and abandoned the children or had gone after the boy to save him, only to be stuck within the wild currents.
Within the rest of About Elly’s two-hour duration, the characters wonder the same thing, pondering on Elly’s background and who deserves responsibility for this possibly deadly occurrence. Farhadi frames the audience as an outside jury, impartial to the character’s construed relationships and putting the pieces of the puzzle together scene by scene. Through this action, we not only learn more about Elly but about the fractured nature of the principal characters, splitting the friendships and marriages apart; yet through such action no one appears particularly malevolent or inhuman, every action seems perfectly understandable and reasonable within the context.
It’s this action that makes Farhadi one of international cinema’s most compelling filmmakers. His desire to present reality in its most suspenseful form doesn’t reveal the worst in human nature but how even good intentions can yield horrible results. Through About Elly’s stern and well-acted cast and tight plot, Farhadi has crafted another film that’s equally brutal yet not pessimistic and dark yet not cynical.