Before the international acclaim earned for The
Past and A Separation, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi delivered this impressive beachside drama to SIFF 2009. Only now, however, is it getting a U.S. release, so it seems like the last in a trilogy of films dealing with the social constraints placed on women (not just Iranian women), instead of the first. The proprieties of marriage, courtship, and divorce cloud what begins as a cheerful weekend on the shore of the Caspian Sea. There are three married couples, some small children, the recently divorced and Germany-based Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), and the friendly, eligible Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). She’s a schoolteacher of slightly lower and less cosmopolitan caste than the rest, invited along by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), the group’s self-appointed matchmaker. Sepideh knows more about Elly than she lets on; and though intending well for Ahmad and guest, her calculated deceptions have terrible consequences after a plot-swerving accident and mystery. (It’s like a Rohmer film suddenly interrupted by Antonioni.)
With the action mostly confined to a rundown beach villa, About Elly first resembles a carefree stage comedy; Farhadi deftly orchestrates both the blocking of so many characters and the delivery of steadily more damning drips of truth. Elly is there under somewhat false pretences (no one even knows her last name). There are surreptitious cell-phone calls and whispered conferences. Even as we’re rooting for a new couple to form, the other marriages start to fray before our eyes. (In one quietly well-played car scene, Ahmad tells Elly how his German wife curtly ended their marriage; but as we know from Farhadi’s other movies, nothing is so simple or final in wedded life.)
Late in the film, we meet a second suitor for the enigmatic Elly, another outsider the group deems unsophisticated (and possibly dangerous), named Alireza (Saber Abbar). Not quite a stalker, he’s a gentle-eyed, unrequited beau; and unlike the hipster-ish, red-BMW-driving Ahmad, he offers no bright prospects for Elly back in Hamburg. Though a scuffle or two breaks out and a nose is bloodied, what really frightens the vacation group is the cops being called. To secure their weekend rental, they lied to the landlord about Elly and Ahmad being newlyweds—because a single young man and a single young woman could never be permitted to travel together.
But the cops do come calling, a corpse is found, and all the blame gets dumped on poor Sepideh. Even her forbearing husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) finally turns on her, shockingly. More than love or marriage, About Elly makes you feel the dread weight of a woman’s “honor” pressing down upon on all its characters, male and female. And from that, no vacation is possible.
ABOUT ELLY Runs Fri., May 22–Thurs., June 4 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 118 minutes.