Blog Directory CineVerse: About Elly is about as good as it gets for sociocultural thrillers

About Elly is about as good as it gets for sociocultural thrillers

Monday, August 8, 2022

About Elly, Asghar Farhadi’s entrancing 2009 feature from Iran about the disappearance of a friend during a weekend vacationing at a seaside home, served notice to cineastes around the globe that this filmmaker is brimming with virtuosity and storytelling dexterity. Only three years later, he would win an Academy Award for best foreign language film with A Separation. The CineVerse faithful gathered last week to parse the former, offering several thought-provoking readings on the movie in the process (warning—spoilers ahead; to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find surprising, memorable, enthralling, or interesting about this film?

  • The beach scene, including the kite-flying setup through the desperate attempt to find Elly in the water, was masterfully executed via rhythmic editing, jarring and kinetic handheld camera work, underwater lensing, and a gripping sound design that makes you feel like you are right there. One critic compared it to Spielberg’s suspenseful filmmaking techniques in Jaws.
  • The movie pulls you in with a false sense of security, using slice-of-life vignettes of the group interacting in humorous, banal, and realistic ways. It isn’t until one-third into the runtime that the filmmakers pull out the rug and create the central conflict that will drive the rest of the story.
  • Once Elly goes missing, the narrative, and the moral dilemmas faced by the characters, unfold like Russian nesting dolls, with lie upon lie revealed and plans and alibis concocted to more conveniently reframe the truth.
  • This picture gives westerners perhaps a refreshingly different look at contemporary Iranians. The film suggests that this may not be as repressed a society as believed and that western sensibilities could be more prevalent in Iran than previously thought.
    • Salon reviewer Andrew O’Hehir wrote: “No one openly challenges Islamic convention in this movie, but minor acts of rebellion are everywhere: The women only cover their heads in the most vestigial fashion, there’s no semblance of religious observation and the two single people in this group of old college friends are thrown together at every opportunity. Those would be Ahmad…and Elly…To international viewers, these normal and appealing young cosmopolitans represent a link between Iran’s past and its future, and the country’s slow, incremental journey to reconnect with the rest of the world. But the disappearance of a woman they don’t know, for reasons they don’t understand, strips away their veneer of contentment and reminds them that their present-tense situation is precarious and full of deadly possibility.”

Major themes

  • White lies can lead to serious consequences.
    • Sepidah lies about her friend Elly, suggesting that she’s single and available to meet Ahmad when actually she is engaged but seeking an escape from that betrothal due to second thoughts about her fiancé. This white lie backfires on her and the group later when Elly’s fiancé Alireza must be told of her supposed drowning.
    • Another dangerous white lie occurs when the older woman renting the group the beach house is told that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds so as not to offend her religious beliefs against premarital relations, a cultural taboo to many in modern Iran.
    • Other assumedly insignificant but ultimately damaging white lies ensue, including Sepidah knowing that the original villa they desired would only be free for one night without telling the others; Elly’s mother not confirming that Elly is away from home (the mother believes the caller is a person Elly wants to keep away); Alireza claiming at first to be Elly’s brother (suspecting his caller to be perhaps a romantic rival to Elly); the grownups asking the children to lie about Sepidah’s matchmaking goal for Elly and Ahmad; and Sepidah denying knowing that Elly’s phone was in her bag.
    • The last and most devastating lie occurs at the finale. This is when Alizera asks Sepidah if Elly refused when Sepidah asked Elly to meet Ahmad. He also inquires if Elly indicated she had a fiancé. Sepidah says no, Elly did not, in an effort to protect herself (remember that her husband says Alizera would possibly kill her) and the group from dishonor.
    • Sight and Sound critic Philip Kemp wrote: “Farhadi focuses mainly on the Tehrani upper-middle-class – educated, cultured, pleasure-seeking, only marginally religious. On the face of it, he’s venturing nowhere near the dangerous territory that led his colleague Jafar Panahi to be censored and jailed by Iran’s ruling ayatollahs. Yet…it’s not hard to detect a subtext: a critique of the lies and evasions that permeate Iranian society.
  • Being caught in a moral catch-22. Elly’s honor and reputation would be sullied if she was disloyal to her fiancé. But if Sepidah and her group urged or inspired Elly to betray her fiancé, their honor and reputation would be discredited. Dishonor in Iranian culture is apparently like a scarlet letter of shame. This is ultimately why Sepidah lies to Alizera and places the responsibility for the deceit on Elly: She wants to protect her friends and loved ones from sociocultural disgrace because she feels guilty for failing to tell them earlier that Elly was engaged.
  • Not accepting responsibility and guilt. Consider how the friends begin to point fingers at each other and deflect blame for Elly’s death or the circumstances they’re in.
  • Blindness to or ignorance of the sensitivity of others. The group questions whether their teasing offended Elly and caused her to leave without saying goodbye. While we know that Elly doesn’t depart, it’s possible that she felt insulted and hurt by the group’s words.
  • Revictimizing the real victim. The group is concerned about their reputations and the legal consequences of their friend drowning or disappearing. But arguably, they lose sight of the big picture: That an innocent and honorable human being has tragically died. When Sepidah tells the fiancé that Elly didn’t refuse to meet with Ahmad or mention that she was engaged, Elly becomes victimized all over again.

Similar works

  • L’Avventura
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock
  • Jaws
  • Under the Sand
  • Headwinds
  • Force Majeure, another moral quandary film about lies and deception

Other films by Asghar Farhadi

  • A Separation
  • The Past
  • The Salesman
  • Everybody Knows
  • A Hero

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