Both About Elly, made in 2009 but released here only now, and the more recent A Separation, are perfect examples of the power of the plot. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi not only knows how to craft perfectly formed cinematic worlds filled with characters that look and feel precisely life-sized and human, but he knows how to structure a story better than any director living today. Both films hinge on a central mystery that wouldn’t be a mystery if all the characters would just confess the full truth to each other – a conceit that would feel like a poor sitcom plotline from a lesser writer – but Farhadi makes the reasons behind each characters actions so clear and inescapable that the situation never feels forced and no piece of information feels withheld for any longer than it should be. About Elly is a chamber drama that grips like an action thriller.
The story concerns three middle-class Iranian families who go on holiday to a villa on the Caspian seashore. Sepideh, who has organised the trip, has brought along her daughters kindergarten teacher to set her up with their single friend Ahmad. Elly is polite and kind and they all get along with her well, but on the second day of the trip she wants to leave immediately for unexplained reasons. They convince her to stay, but after one of the children nearly drowns, she vanishes. Did she dive in after him and get swept out to sea, or did she vanish without telling anyone? As they try and work out what happened, they soon realise that the missing piece of the puzzle is Elly herself: was she the kind of person to up and leave for no reason? Had they inadvertently offended her somehow? To whom had she sneaked off to make a phone call the day before?
It soon becomes clear that there is a great lie at the centre of what’s happened, and in whittling that lie down to find the truth the film becomes a tense interpersonal drama. Sepideh (astonishingly played by Golshifteh Farahani) is quickly reduced to a wreck, not only feeling responsible for inviting her to what may be her death, and everyone else is quick to point the blame at her. Iran’s social codes quickly tighten their grip on all the characters, and if Elly has died, they may have to manage the truth of why she was there in the first place.
What makes the film’s structure so remarkable is that the search for the truth that the plot hinges on involves no surfacing of details, no clues to piece together: it simply involves the characters not telling each other what they already know in an attempt to control their situation. Rather than a slow reveal, the film is a slow breaking down of arguments, an elimination of possibilities, until finally the whole truth in all its ragged, devastating detail is revealed in one word at the film’s climax.
Farhadi is often considered a writer first and a director second, but it takes a skilled director to keep a handle on a cast this size without things becoming confusing. Alternating between shots of the ensemble and close-up reaction shots of people’s faces, he manages to keep a tether on each characters feelings and motivations without ever losing the big picture. After A Separation I felt that he had something of Robert Altman’s understanding of how humans talk and behave to one another, and About Elly only solidifies that comparison: he also possesses Altman’s skill with an ensemble. Furthermore, as with A Separation’s glass-filled apartment, the villa is a masterpiece of design: big, open, bleak rooms in which the characters have little opportunity for privacy. His script may be the star, but this is much more than a play that’s been committed to celluloid.
Oscar notwithstanding, it’s a shame that Farhadi isn’t receiving more attention in the West. Critics went apeshit for A Separation and About Elly is receiving glowing praise as well, but his films aren’t impenetrable arthouse fare – they’re hugely accessible. The particulars of his stories are specific to Iran, but the emotions and behaviors of his characters are universal. I can’t imagine anyone going to see it and not being gripped by its sheer narrative force. In short, About Elly solidifies my conviction that Farhadi isn’t just one of the greatest filmmakers working today – he’s one of the best writers in any medium.