The strength of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s filmmaking lies in his ability to effectively turn the audience into one of the characters in the story he is narrating. I first got a taste of this from his 2011 film A Separation which, by the time I was done with it, made me feel as I’ve had a full meal, which was cooked to perfection. His strong grasp of family dynamics and the impressive manner in which he depicts them are second to none. I can only a recall a few American directors who have come close to achieving Farhadi’s level of mastery over his actors. One fine example being John Cassavetes. Farhadi’s About Elly is no exception and narrates a story of an Iranian family that is subjected to a tremendous amount of pressure.
The film opens with this large middle-class family arriving at a deserted seaside villa to enjoy this vacation. One member of this group is an outsider, a woman named Elly, who we slowly learn was brought along by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) with the intention of introducing her to a recently divorced young man Ahmad. When Elly decides to leave the next day, Sepideh persuades her to stay. Soon after, Elly disappears and no one has any clue where she has gone. Everyone presumes that she has drowned in the sea while playing with the kids. The search-and-rescue team fail to find her body and the family’s life is turned upside down.
The plot device of a woman disappearing in the middle of a vacation at a seaside location with no one having any clue as to who she was and where she went has been previously tried by Michelangelo Antonioni in L’avventura. But by mentioning that film, I am not telling you that this is a remake. On the contrary, it’s a completely different story and miles apart from the Antonioni film. What Farhadi has concocted here is something that resembles a thrilling police procedural but without the police. Each family member tries to resolve the mystery of Elly and every question that is asked brings to light new developments that comes as a shocking surprise to both the family members and us. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Farhadi turns us into one of the family members, as an uninvolved silent spectator observing the proceedings, waiting in anticipation of whatever uneasy truth they’ll have to expect soon.
Most of the blame falls on Sepideh who is seen as the one who had arranged all this. Tempers flare when it is revealed that Sepideh is as much in the dark about Elly as the rest of them. But her odd behavior gives rise to too many questions: Is she hiding something? Is she pretending to not know anything about her? Why did Elly leave behind her bag if she wanted to leave without saying a word? When a major pivotal truth about Elly is revealed, the whole family is faced with perhaps the most complicated episode in their life. Things get so unbearably intense not just for the characters but also for the audience. Farhadi sets up the opening 30 minutes of the film in a cheerful mood and what we witness is a group of fun loving individuals having a joyous time. They sing, they dance, they dine and they play games.
The atmosphere is pleasant and we feel as if nothing can go wrong. We are completely at ease. When this 30 minutes is over, Farhadi lets us know that fun time is over and that now it’s time to start feeling really, really anxious about what is about to happen for the next 90 minutes. He succeeds and how. His ability to generate tension and sustain it without fail for the remainder of the film is truly remarkable. And he achieves all this without the use of a background score. There is no spooky music to announce that things are about to get worse. Instead, he effectively makes use of the ambient noises such as the lashing sea waves, a car approaching, a ball hitting a window pane or it can be a particular mannerism from any of these characters.
The camera follows these characters and we are sometimes made to stay with them and get a tangible sense of what each of them are experiencing at that present moment. It helps that Farhadi has assembled such an immensely talented bunch of actors to convincingly play these characters. Their performances are jaw-droppingly authentic and left me completely speechless. Golfshifteh Farahaani as Sepideh is unbelievably natural and comfortable in her role. She does a fantastic job of conveying her character’s confusion, guilt, regret and desperate attempts to make things right. Peyman Moadi from A Separation appears as one of the male members of the family. The film is a must watch for aspiring filmmakers as there is a lot to be learned about the structuring of it’s narrative and control of pace.
Here’s the trailer: