Mystery by the Sea
A question: how will Asghar Farhadi follow up a genuine, almost undisputed masterpiece such as A Separation? Alas, we'll have to wait until at least next year to find out the answer. In the meantime, distributors have a small but significant Farhadi back catalogue to plunder and present to the many audience members wooed by last year's best film (I have absolutely no qualms making such a statement). About Elly is Farhadi's 2009 predecessor to A Separation, and its quite astonishing that it took that film's success to earn this equally majestic work a wide cinematic release.
Veterans of Antonioni's L'avventura will recognise some very basic similarities with that film's plot: they both feature a vanishing and an upper-middle class ensemble. Although that's pretty much where comparisons end: whereas Antonioni's approach was more experimental and existential, About Elly is more straightforward (there's even full-on dramatic resolution, a concept the Italian director rejected). Although that's no bad thing...
Here, a group of middle-class Iranian friends leave Tehran for a weekend away. In their company is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), invited along by enthusiastic matchmaker Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who hopes Elly will prove a suitable potential fiancee for Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini, who featured in A Separation - that film's male lead
Peyman Moadi is also present here). The rest of the group know nothing of Elly, but they warm to her quickly. A misunderstanding results in the friends missing out on their usual villa and settling on a rundown beachside house instead. After twenty four hours of cleaning and general merriment, Elly is anxious to get home, constantly reminding Sepideh that she only agreed to stay for a day. Sepideh ignores her pleas and forcibly encourages an increasingly distraught Elly to stick around. When asked to keep an eye on the kids as they play on the beach, Elly mysteriously disappears, leading to a series of startling revelations and convoluted deceptions.
Here's a rare challenge, and one that may well become pronounced as we get to see more Farhadi films: I'm struggling to think of sufficiently positive adjectives and adverbs to critique this gem of a production. Like A Separation, this is a film devoid of negative attributes, or at the very least none significant enough to be worthy of comment. This is as close as contemporary cinema gets to true flawlessness. From the jovial opening sequences to the devastating conclusion, About Elly is truly great cinema with nary a misjudged frame.
What's most amazing is how effortless Farhadi makes it all look. Now, obviously a film this tightly crafted has had immeasurable effort and enthusiasm poured into it. But with its proudly unshowy delivery and razor-sharp pacing, it all flows so deceptively simply. Farhadi is a wonderful cinematic storyteller - from the micro details to the deeply engrained social commentary (this time, Iran's gender dynamics and social hypocrisies are up for scrutiny), the writer/director is perhaps almost unequalled in his ability to hook an audience into his fascinating narratives. Nothing detracts from the story. This is a particularly taut and claustrophobic tale, taking place around a tiny handful of locations, and mostly confined to the beach house and its neighbouring shoreline.
Visually, About Elly is again misleading in its simplicity. The camera moves and flows elegantly with the story: the camera motion becoming more intense and unstable in parallel with the film's most dramatic and emotional junctures. It's a film with an absence of excess or unnecessary distraction. This extends to even the sound design: there's only a single (devastating) music cue at the very end (like that astonishing conclusion to A Separation, the final moments are truly heartbreaking). The result is purely cinematic storytelling that never condescends to its audience.
I could gush about Farhadi and his technical crew indefinitely, but that would mean I ignore the other people who make this film truly great: the cast. What a fantastic ensemble it is. Every character here feels like a (to borrow a phrase from the Drive soundtrack) real human being, and they interact in entirely convincing ways. The cast is almost universally excellent, but Golshifteh Farahani is particularly hypnotic as the closest thing the film has to a traditional protagonist (although this is very much a group piece, and Elly herself is a major driving force despite limited screen presence). Also worthy of individual note is Saber Abar, who shows up late but makes a very strong impression as an acquaintance of Ellys who defies both the audiences' and characters' expectations of such a character. The honest, naturalistic performances add huge depth to the film as a whole. Without such talented actors, the film's drama and emotional sucker punches would lack force. Instead, we are fascinated by their motivations, distressed by their bad decisions and deeply affected by their dilemmas.
I'll stop before all this enthusiasm and unchecked praise becomes tiring. In summary: About Elly is just wonderful. Pretty much everything about it. It cements Farghadi's standing as one of the most important living directors. It may be a little late arriving in cinemas, but this is by no means a negative indicator of its quality: this is every single bit the film A Separation is. Indeed, perhaps it allows us to answer the question posed in the opening paragraph after all, albeit with some slight alterations. How did Asghar Farhadi follow up a masterpiece like About Elly? With another masterpiece.