About Elly (2009) – the fourth film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning director of A Separation (2011) – is another intense, contemporary tragedy about the ambiguities of truth and the consequences of being honest. Farhadi, to the extent of few directors before him, crafts a complex economy of truth and lies which interrogates the public façade of piety and self-control in a society where they seem to be deeply entrenched habits. On a trip to the coast with old friends, strongly-willed twentysomething Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), invites along her daughter’s teacher, the eponymous Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti).
Sepideh does so with the intention of matchmaking her with recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). One seemingly innocuous deception leads to a disaster that exceeds the human capacity to talk things over and work things out. The democratic scenes of middle-class camaraderie at the beginning contrast with the disruption of this illusion later; leaving only deafening silence and the vacuous, rolling tide of the sea – reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960). The lacerating aftershock of all this is a social landscape altered irrevocably, as each friend competes to save their soul amidst the much larger tragedy of losing one altogether.
Farhadi refuses to spare characters or blame them: he captures the confusion of the unfolding tragedy, and how this breaks down what we know to matter and what we know to make sense. Faith is restored in what other directors ignore, the evocative power of normal human actions: Sepideh driving off without closing the door; Ahmad tripping up and injuring himself; small mistakes which, emotionally charged with panic and despair, can suddenly acquire special force. About Elly’s realistic drama underscores the vagaries of fate: when a gesture can be forgotten about because it means nothing, or when it can be remembered, treasured or resented, because every second counts.
Even at times when gender relations are not explicitly referenced, they are nevertheless made present by their absence. The films of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the revered triumvirate of Iranian cinema, have become the yardsticks of cultural, social, and political progress by which all new Iranian films must be judged. Subjugation occurs in Farhadi films – sometimes to the extent of physical violence – when tolerance reaches its limit; when rationality gives way to explosive outbreaks of feeling, and the hierarchy of obedience and patriarchy is no longer codified or regulated by social mores. About Elly is no different, in this respect.
Through the void that tragedy creates, Farhadi wants to “open a space” which offers a sensitive and imaginative expansion of ourselves, from consumers to independent thinkers. Such a genuine and unobtrusive interest in people requires a director that understands the diversity of his cast, and the intricacies of their performances. About Elly trusts intimate contact with the individual above the collective consciousness of the group, revealing Farhadi to be the one of the most humanist of filmmakers working today.