Movie Review - About Elly (2009)

Cast of 'About Elly' as they play charades
This film about a group of friends set in a seaside villa in Iran was released six years ago. It's now getting distribution in the United States, a proper theatrical run, because its director is now a higher profile filmmaker. Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for A Separation (2011). He followed it up with the critically acclaimed The Past (2013). Because he's now so well regarded, Cinema Guild has picked up this film from Farhadi's own past and and is making it available to American audiences. One critic calls it a masterpiece. It's gotten nothing but mostly positive reviews. It definitely has the mark of an assured auteur, but it doesn't come close to the greatness that was A Separation.

The problem with this film, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, is the over dependence of this mystery that he builds. A group of about ten people gather at a seaside villa. They drive there from Tehran. The group includes several couples and their children. Among the group is a woman named Elly, played by Taraneh Alidoosti. Elly is not a relative or close friend. She's the teacher of one of the couples' children. She's invited ostensibly to be setup on a date with the brother of the wife of one of the couples.

However, on the second day of their weekend getaway, Elly disappears and none of them can find her. The mystery is that no one in the group knows where she is. She's last seen with the children where an accident occurs, which almost leaves one of the children drowned in the ocean. They assume that Elly instead might have drowned. However, another theory presumes she might have just abandoned everyone and is still alive.

Yes, Farhadi is dependent on this mystery. He directs it at such a frantic pace and with such a frantic sensibility that the movie is hardly lacking in energy or tension. Yet, this dependence on the mystery mostly distracts from issues raised in this film that were vastly more interesting than actually learning Elly's fate.

For starters, it takes this disappearance of Elly to reinforce the fact that no one in the group was related or close friends with her. They're mainly trying to hook her up on a date with one of the couples' brother, yet they know next to nothing about her. The irony of that or the reality that there are people in our lives whom we don't truly know or don't even try to know is an issue Farhadi could have really tackled here. He has a lot of moments of the group doing things together, while Elly gets isolated, but he never goes fully that route.

Using the disappearance as a way of deconstructing the relationships within the group particularly the couples is a route Farhadi takes and he does a good job with it. The dialogue is sharply written and he gets highly authentic and at times exasperatingly frantic performances from his actors. The best among them is Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies and Rosewater) who plays Sepideh. Sepideh is the one who invites Elly to the getaway and whose brother is the one that Elly is supposed to date. Farahani pours so much raw emotion on screen that, forget the water, we're almost drowning in Sepideh's emotions.

The first third of the film is filled with a lot of levity and humor, as the group sings, dances and plays games. Once the disappearance occurs, the movie loses all levity and humor with the exception of one moment. Sepideh's brother Ahmad, played by Shahab Hosseini, has to get the children to lie about what happened to Elly and the scene is as ingenious as it is hilarious.

This brings me to the last issue short-changed by Farhadi's over-dependence on the mystery. The group finds it necessary to lie because they uncover some lies about and from Elly. These lies stem from a man named Alireza, played by Saber Abbar, whom Elly was trying to avoid. Alireza then shows up at the villa looking for answers about what happened to Elly. This provides some thrills, but no exploration is done or explanation is given as to why Elly wanted to avoid this guy, beyond a throwaway line.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.


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