The joy of meddling is first celebrated, then severely chastised in About Elly (2009), a stunning new feature by Asghar Farhadi, which sees the complexity and craftsmanship of his superb Fireworks Wednesday (2006) elevated to a new level.
Over a weekend at the seashore, a group of well-to-do young Teheranians tries to set up their freshly-divorced friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) with an amiable yet aloof kindergarten teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) – whom none of them knows too well. Running into adversities is the theme from the start, when it appears that the house they booked is available for one night only, and all have to switch for a spacious but run-down mansion, devoid of heating and hardly even furnished. As the relaxed time passes (an obligatory game of charades, some white lies told to the landlady), it’s difficult to say if the supposed affair buds or not. Then, all of a sudden, Elly disappears.
The comparison with Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) – a knee-jerk reaction for any cinephile – is actually wrong. Farhadi’s world is too dense with mundane details to become the kind of environment that could dilute a person to the point of disappearance – and that was what the sun-scorched, abstract island did to Lea Massari’s ‘Anna’. In About Elly, the central event is rapid, violent and causes real and widening rupture – whatever happens afterwards, has as much to do with a denouement as it has with an entirely new plot being built from scratch by the ever-lying, self-protective characters. Farhadi shown his interest in deception in Fireworks Wednesday, as well – he’s one of the few directors I can think of that doesn’t relish in it, though. The lies told by his characters are clear to us – we may even find them humorous at times – but we are never encouraged to cheer them or wish for them to pile up. Quite the contrary: at some point, their proliferation makes us queasy.
In About Elly, the plans go bad and the wounds get deeper with each desperate yank any of the multiple character makes. The film’s script is tightly structured and resembles a bedroom farce, almost. (One can easily imagine this material being re-designed as a full-blown comedy). But to fully appreciate Farhadi’s accomplishment is to understand that – however crowded – this movie is really about two people: the benign über-meddler Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), and her main victim, who doesn’t enter the story until very late and whose identity shouldn’t be revealed in a mere note like this one. It is their brief and heart-wrenching conversation at the end (with Sepideh delivering her ultimate, shattering fabrication) that left me in absolute awe of this movie.