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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: About Elly

Asghar Faradhi is quietly churning out some of the best dramatic films in the world, most notably with 2011's still powerful A Separation. For many Western audiences, A Separation was their first serious exposure to Farhardi's work, but before its release, he made a major splash at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival with the Silver Bear-winning About Elly. Unfortunately mired in distribution issues since then, however, About Elly never really made it over to American shores. That's finally changing. Its rights finally settled, American audiences can finally appreciate one of Faradhi's earlier films, an intimate drama with the hard edge of a thriller that brilliantly examines the intersection of gender and religion in Iran.

When a group of former law school friends and their families meet  up for a vacation with one another, there's one newcomer with the group: Elly, a tenuous acquaintance of one of the women in the group. Explicitly brought along to introduce to Ahmad, a recently-divorced friend of the group's, Elly is the only outsider. After they lose their initial lodgings, they're forced to lie, however, claiming that Elly and Ahmad are recently married, otherwise they legally wouldn't be allowed to stay together in the single seaside home the group now rents. But when Elly goes missing while she's supposed to be looking after the children, the group is forced to confront how little they actually know about her - and how calamitous such little lies can ultimately be.

Faradhi has a strong concept - a person basically vanishing from the middle of a party - but what really sets About Elly apart is what he does with it. For the first third of the film, About Elly feels like a slice-of-life dramedy, tracking a group of well-off, educated, middle-class Iranians on vacation. It's easy to empathize with them, there, as Faradhi highlights the casual, humanistic warmth of the characters; the cast, every single member of it, is a fully realized person. Elly's disappearance, however, shines a light on the group, and as it does, the focus shifts from them as individuals to them as members of society. As they're forced to contend with the lies they told (and were told), they retreat more and more into Iran's powerful, heavily gendered social strictures. The change in the characters is subtle, so subtle it's hard to notice precisely when it takes place, but Faradhi has some interesting things to say about who we are in private compared to who society has shaped us to be

Such nuance would be difficult without some excellent performances, and About Elly is packed with 'em. Golshifteh Farahani carries most of the dramatic weight of the film as Sepideh, the only member of the group who knew Elly before the vacation and the one who invited her along. Initially carefree and flirty, Sepideh is the first to realize the implications of Elly's disapperance, and the one hit the hardest by the blame. Farahani is brilliant in the role, seemingly disappearing into herself as the situation gets worse. Taraneh Alidoosti is very good as Elly. Withdrawn but friendly, Elly feels like a background character at first, but Alidoosti nails her quiet transition from a woman with a lot on her mind to one who is slowly consumed with concern for a life we (and her traveling companions) initially know nothing about. And that's just scratching the surface of a film that harbors plenty of depths.

About Elly is a gorgeous film, well-shot with phenomenal performances. Rather than filling the movie with incident, Faradhi smartly lays out a series of key revelations then thoroughly explores what they mean to the cast before changing up the game again. His movies are often focused on dishonesty and consequence, and About Elly plays with this idea on a larger scale, demonstrating the differences between our private and public persona, and how that conflicts with a mass conservative religious movement that forces people to lie in order to be themselves. Farhadi is one of the best storytellers making films today, and while the thrilling, empathetic About Elly doesn't quite live up to his masterpiece, few films do. But make no mistake: This is essential viewing.

About Elly was released in 2009, and is only now reaching the U.S., including a release at Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema starting Friday, May 22nd. Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, About Elly stars Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, and Taraneh Alidoosti.
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