When middle-class Iranians in Tehran have a holiday, they often like to escape their dry urban confines and trek up north to the Caspian seaside, where everything is cooler and greener. It’s also an opportunity for people to be a little more casual and relaxed in the open air. About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009) is a deceptively clever film about one such holiday visit, where events don’t go exactly as planned. Over the course of the three-day weekend by the sea, the viewer is exposed to the fascinatingly complex social dynamics of people under stress. In particular, this film has things to say about some of the nuances of Iranian culture under these circumstances (but, of course, much of what happens relates generally to how all of us interact with others).
The film was written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose subsequent production was the more famous and highly praised A Separation (2011), which won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Without diminishing the excellence of A Separation, however, I would say that About Elly is even better and is Farhadi’s best work so far.
The principal characters are a group of holiday travelers who are linked by old friendships formed years before at law school:
- Amir and Sepideh are a married couple whose daughter, Moravid, is in kindergarten.
- Peyman and Shohreh are a second couple with a little boy and girl, Arash and Anita.
- Manouchehr and Naazy are a third couple.
- Ahmad, also an old friend in addition to being Naazy’s brother, has returned to visit Iran from Germany, where he recently went through a divorce.
- Elly is Moravid’s kindergarten teacher and has been invited along on the trip.
Sepideh is the vivacious social organizer and energizer of the group. Without her, as she herself points out early on, the entire Caspian trip wouldn’t have happened. One of her principal goals for the trip is to match up the now-available Ahmad with the pretty and modestly charming Elly, in the hopes that romantic developments will ensue. This match-making quickly becomes an open secret among the entourage, and whenever Elly is out of earshot, they all teasingly encourage Ahmad to make his move.
When they all arrive at the seaside villa, they are informed by the local caretaker that the villa they want is only available for one night and that there are probably no other nearby accommodations during this busy three-day holiday period. It turns out that Sepideh had known beforehand that only one night was available, but she had not told the others about it, figuring that once they got up to the seaside they could find further accommodation for the other two days. She explains to them her reasoning: if she had told them all beforehand about the villa being available for only one night, she couldn’t have convinced them to set out on the trip in the first place. In her mind, a little deception was needed to make things happen.
Sepideh then pleads with the local caretaker woman in private that they really need a nice place, because Elly and Ahmad are on their honeymoon. This little white lie moves the woman to make an extra effort to accommodate the group, and she arranges for an abandoned villa by the sea to be opened up to them. But note that Sepideh’s little fibs are not just incidental to the story; indeed they constitute one of the major themes of About Elly – how do we convey the truth to others?
In this connection I would offer the comment that whenever we are in any group, there is a shared understanding concerning issues of mutual concern. We point to people and things in the world in front of us and discuss them, hoping that we understand each other, even though we know that we all have our own individual interpretations about these things. Sometimes, in order to spur cooperative group activity in a certain direction, though, we may exaggerate or even innocently bend the literal truth about something. This of course can be dangerous.
Anyway, returning to the film story, as the viewer watches the evolving socializing of the various people, he or she is likely to assume that the principal narrative line will be about the emerging relationship of Ahmad and Elly. But on the second day of their outing (about thirty-five minutes into the film) the story takes a disruptive dramatic turn. The three little children are playing by the beach, and Elly is asked to watch them while the other adults attend to their various activities and chores. The viewer doesn’t see exactly what happens in this situation with Elly and the children, but it soon emerges that Arash has wandered out into the sea and is lost, and Elly is not around. There is now a desperate effort by find Arash in the sea and save him from drowning. The panic-stricken group do just manage to rescue and revive the nearly-drowned Arash, but then the attention of the group turns to Elly. Where is she?
The rest of the story is concerned with finding out where Elly is and what has happened to her. There are two conjectures. She may have drowned attempting to rescue Arash. Or she may have abruptly left the group and gone back to Tehran without telling anyone. What makes the second conjecture plausible is that it is known by several group members that Elly had only wanted to stay one night at the seaside villa and then return to her infirm mother back home. In addition, they wonder if the demure Elly had been offended by the boisterous teasing that had been the social undertone of the interactions on the trip.
Now the finger-pointing begins. With Elly missing, a police investigation ensues to find out the truth of what happened to her. What had begun in the film as an exercise in social bonding and harmonizing now dissolves into finding blame and searching for excuses to maintain individual innocence. As they attempt to discover the truth about Elly, the group uncovers the many little lies that had been accumulating during their time together. The lies were all understandable within their specific social contexts, but now they are exposed as violations of the truth.
Then the story takes another turn when a phone call to Elly’s home in Tehran uncovers the fact that Elly had a fiancé and that upon hearing news of Elly’s disappearance, the fiancé is now rushing to the Caspian area to investigate. This discovery adds a further layer of guilt, because the group may now appear to have some moral taint in connection with having arranged an apparent romantic tryst between Ahmad and Elly. Now the new issue becomes who among the group knew that Elly had a fiancé. To protect themselves, it seems to some of them that further falsehoods may be necessary.
These three phases of the film thus reflect the shifting social dynamics among the group.
- In the first phase of the film, before Elly’s disappearance, the socializing was oriented around finding ways to bond and achieve social harmony. This involves some minor falsehoods, but the goal was to achieve social unity.
- The second phase covers the period after Elly’s disappearance and before the appearance of the fiancé. Here the social dynamics are all involved with selfish concerns. How can each of them establish his or her own innocence and separation from the group?
- The third phase, after the arrival of the fiancé, sees the group members reluctantly working together again, this time to arrive at an agreed-upon story to tell the fiancé.
So the story moves from group-thinking –> selfish-thinking –> group thinking as it evolves through the three phases. As the story progresses, all of the characters, including Elly and her fiancé, participate in deception in one form or another. Most of these falsehoods, particularly those of Sepideh, were uttered in support of group harmony, not just for selfish reasons. In fact the biggest liars in the story, Sepideh, Ahmad, Manouchehr, and Naazy, are the most selfless and compassionate. They exude innocence. The three characters most closely adhering to the literal truth, Amir, Shohreh, and Peyman, are in fact the most selfish people in the story.
In About Elly, Farhadi has pulled off a tour de force that cinematically evokes aspects of Michelangelo Antonioni’s work, which also often involves complex ensemble acting performances. Indeed Farhadi remarked in a recent interview that earlier Italian filmmakers had a major influence on his development. Particularly comparable here is Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), which also begins with a group of people on a holiday that is disrupted with the early disappearance of what appeared to have been the major character. But while Antonioni’s focus in L’Avventura eventually centers on two remaining characters, Farhadi accomplished the more difficult feat of maintaining the narrative focus on the entire ensemble throughout About Elly. It’s interesting that Farhadi manages to maintain the visual coherence of this collective interaction without using as much complicated moving-camera cinematography as was employed by Antonioni. Unfortunately, Farhadi again resorts to shaky, hand-held camera framing in order to evoke emotional agitation. To me this technique is distracting and ineffective. On the other hand, I must admit that the in-the-water close-up cinematography used in the rescue of Arash scenes (how could this be done without agitated framing?) is convincing and very effective.
The acting performances in About Elly are uniformly superb. Golshifteh Farhanai's performance in the role of Sepideh is particularly compelling, but all the principal characters have distinct personalities and associated social proclivities that are consistently and believably sustained throughout the film. As the tension mounts during the various crises, each person responds in a way that drives the organic behaviour of the group forward. This is what makes the ensemble performances work so well and achieve a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there is a special Iranian flavor to what goes on in About Elly. As you would expect, there is the nuanced social backdrop concerning how men and women behave towards each other, particularly inside a traditional culture such as Iran’s that is also influenced by modernism. But there is also an even more specifically interesting Iranian cultural attitude that should be highlighted in this connection, and that concerns the cultural attitudes about literal truth. In general, I would say that Iranians have a stronger-than-usual cultural inclination to avoid telling people what they don’t like to hear. And this can often involve concealing the truth. This tendency to prevaricate may be culturally reinforced by the Shia Islamic tradition of taqiyya, which sanctions hiding the truth in certain circumstances. The disposition to occasionally mislead is also probably supported by the famed Iranian tradition of social etiquette, known as taarof, which directs people to speak and act with the utmost courtesy. One might argue about the proper boundaries and limits of such practices, but their sustained existence in Iranian cultural behaviour offers clear evidence that successful social interactions go beyond black-and-white utterances about what is true and what is good for the overall group or society. In fact many times we don’t know exactly what is true, and mere adherence to a literal, but uncertain, truth about something may not lead to the most “positive” (an admittedly interpretation-dependent term) course of action. Thus in the final verbal exchange that takes place in About Elly, Sepideh evidently lies one last time. Was this final lie ultimately a selfish act? You can reflect on what her reasons may have been for doing this and whether or not you agree with them.
- The Farsi word in the title, ‘Dabareyeh’, means ‘concerning’ in English and has been translated as ‘about’ in the English version of the title. But ‘about’ has additional connotations in English beyond ‘concerning’, including 'around' or 'nearby'. This injects some extra suggestive meaning into the English form of the ironic title.