Asghar Farhadi’s fourth feature About Elly, which had its North American premiere this weekend at Tribeca, is a mirror of sorts to Michelangelo Antonini’s stylistic revolution, L’avventura. But like any image in polished glass, the message here is reversed. In Antonini’s cinema-as-architecture response to neo-realism, morality stands no chance against leisure; Farhadi’s protagonists try to use leisure to foster a quiet rebellion. Or at least his women do. The results might be the same in both pictures — the sea, be it the Caspian or Aeolian, is hungry for the innocent — but Farhadi’s characters are not ready to sulk off into the night, even if the situation is hopeless.
For Western audiences, About Elly begins with a potentially revelatory mis en scene, especially for those of us who picture contemporary Iranian life through the CNN-glazed view of that country’s Holocaust denying leader. The young married couples depicted here are familiar: the women with their knock-off Louis Vuitton bags and the men decked out in Nike, pack up their mid-sized cars to flee the traffic snarls of Tehran for a weekend at the beach. They barbecue; they sing; they tease each other with the type of ease Western audiences don’t associate with rogue nuclear programs.
A lot of their of good-natured ribbing is aimed at their recently divorced friend Ahmed, who has moved back to Iran from Germany and is looking to settle down with a nice Iranian girl — a girl like Elly, who has been invited along accordingly. Unlike Ahmed, she seems mortified by the set up, as do some of her hosts, although the truth behind her discomfort is hidden. We’re given some small hints that something is wrong, but these are masked by Golshifteh Farahani‘s careful portrayal of Sepideh, Ahmed’s friend who has invited Elly. Her lies about the availability of the house the couples were supposed to stay in, and her cheerful agreement to take another filthier one, and to clean it, aren’t what seems so out of place — in fact Iranian women here seem to have their roles as housewives clearly defined — but her enthusiasm is quietly suspicious.
Farhadi’s steady hand and naturalistic touches make the coming twist all the more shocking. Not to reveal too much more here, although L’avventura fans know what’s on the menu, the remainder of the movie takes viewers to a darker place where the relationships between men and women are revealed with a cinematic purity not often experienced — the small gestures and lingering takes on the sea say more than a crane shot or flashy editing could.
Here the contrast between Farhadi and Antonini is perhaps sharpest. Although L’avventura is certainly cinematic with its relationship between images and themes, the Italian stylist revolted against the neo-realistic techniques fathered by his countrymen, and Antonini’s pristine frames and narrative rebellions function as metaphors, not statements. In Farhadi’s world, cold glances, a husband’s demand for more tea, and tearful rage, are all comments, not symbols, on a culture where telling the truth is often not the best option. It’s a culture that lends itself to suspense, and Farhadi might have more in common with Hitchcock, than the Iranian New Wave he emerges from.
Influences and contrasts aside, About Elly stands on its own as a clever thriller sans crime, and an opportunity to visit with the Iranian middle class, which just might be the most revolutionary experience a film-goer can have this year.
About Elly plays again this Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Click here for more info.