About Elly concerns the lies we tell and the truths we hide. Asgar Farhadi’s gun shootouts are his characters’ heated discussions. His plots are built on moral dilemmas, not pandering formulas. There are no good guys and bad guys: everyone acts in understandable ways given their circumstances. The Iranian director behind The Past and A Separation makes universally compelling and should-be-mainstream films.
Playing at Berlin and Tribeca film festivals in 2009, this film was lauded by film theorist and historian David Bordwell as “a masterpiece.” Being an unsexy, foreign art-film and sitting on the shelf for six years, only recently, after Farhadi gained some enthusiasts through A Separation and The Past, has there been a demand for About Elly’s release.
The film traces a group of middle-class friends in Iran who leave the city to relax at a resort on the water. Other than a few hints at deeper despair, the interactions between the characters are lighthearted and playful–like when we put on our best face for a new acquaintance.
At some point, every character tells a lie. It’s almost impossible to decipher what is made up and what is true. Eventually, what first seems like a kitchen sink drama evolves into a Hitchcockian thriller in which every reveal demands more questions.
The atmospheric-sounding waves which permeate the soundtrack are chilling, but as a whole, the aesthetic masks the apparatuses of filmmaking not through the typical signifiers of realism but from the sense that we are not being manipulated by a filmmaker: each unflashy stylistic choice feels fitting. The lack of non-diagetic music leaves us unsure how to feel. Farhadi looks and asks us to come to our own conclusions based on the information we’re given.
The director is as concerned with gender politics and the effects of moral traditions as he is with telling a riveting drama. Contrasts between gender roles are expressed by juxtaposing men playing and women serving. Elly’s friend, Sepideh, seems subtly uncomfortable with what is expected of her. She joins a volleyball game while the other women work in the kitchen. She is seen pushed by her husband as the conflict that was hidden by deceitful chivalry comes to the forefront. Sepideh is even more fascinating than the enigmatic Elly, because her motives for inviting the titular character on the trip defy the sexist constrictions that she seems to detest. Farhadi has questioned dogmatic moral traditions with empathy and tension.
He refuses to exaggerate his stories with cinematic trickery. I’ve left every Asgar Farhadi film thrilled and nearly moved to tears. His characters may lie as much as they breathe, but as a filmmaker, Farhadi couldn’t be any more honest.