Saturday, April 16, 2011

About Elly (Darbareye Elly) Movie Review

Update 4/9/15: At long last this film has found a release and distribution in the United States, thanks to the success of Farhadi's two most recent films, A Separation and The Past.

This review was written when I saw the film during its theatrical release in Spain in May 2010. I held off posting it in the event it was ever given a North American release. Although it played several small festivals around the US, it doesn't look like it will find distribution over there.

So I post this review here for the first time.

Don’t be fooled by the title, which I assume is intended as ironic. By the time the end credits roll on About Elly (Darbareye Elly), an intimate Iranian film from writer-director Asghar Farhadi, you are not likely to know a whole lot more about Elly than you did at the start. That’s not entirely true, actually. You’ll know more about her, but the information provided is hardly illuminating.

The story is of three families who take a weekend jaunt away from Teheran to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani of Body of Lies) invites her daughter’s school teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), along hoping to successfully match her with the recently divorced Ahmad. Their weekend begins with lively fun and joy and a couple of innocent mistakes (Sepideh hasn’t properly booked their beach house), that eventually reveal deeper character flaws and minor lies (they tell the woman who owns the rental houses that Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) and Elly are recently married and celebrating) that later present real problems.

The first night is spent laughing and having a good time. Realizing the reason for Elly’s presence, they are all assessing and evaluating her character and suitability for Ahmad. When she leaves the room to get something from the kitchen, the rest laugh at something unrelated to her. Does she hear them and feel bad?

The next day Elly insists she must leave. She told Sepideh she would only stay for a day. Sepideh won’t have it. Another of the women asks Elly to keep an eye on the children by the water for a few minutes. Then a near-tragedy occurs. One of the children comes running to the front of the house where the men are playing volleyball. Her brother is missing in the water. There’s panic and a scrambled search and the boy is found. Thankfully he is revived. But then…where is Elly? There is a second panic and search of the water. A prolonged search turns up nothing before sunset and they are told to wait through the night for the tide to come in and wash the body onto shore.

As more details emerge, the group isn’t sure if Elly went into the water to save the boy, dying heroically, or if she left while she was meant to be minding the children. This becomes the central question of the film. The group debates what to do about contacting her family. The movie switches from a potential romance to a character study of an absent woman. It becomes an exercise in how we, as people, are quick to judge based on limited evidence.

The problem is she’s been brought there under false pretenses and Sepideh feels she has to conceal the truth so as not to implicate herself, but also to maintain Elly’s honor in her presumed death. Lies and concealment lead to more of the same until it all eventually comes to a head when someone near and dear to Elly arrives from Teheran.

As a writer and director, Farhadi gets several things right. The characters feel like real people and as a viewer I never felt distanced from them as if I were an outside observer, this despite the vast gulf between my language and culture and theirs. This is partially accomplished with the use of handheld cameras, which lend immediacy to the whole movie. The actors seem so comfortable with themselves and each other that they create a realistic sense of friendship and camaraderie.

But the problem is that it feels like all the lies and deceit are designed to create the plot rather than serve it. The point at which a character finally says, “It’s time to tell the truth,” comes much later than seems logically plausible. Then you realize that if the truth had been told from the beginning there wouldn’t be much movie.

Ultimately the crucial question is resolved. We know the answer in the end, but we don’t really learn anything. Elly remains an enigma throughout, which is apparently the point. The title of the film is an ironic misnomer because there is very little we learn about the real Elly that isn’t the result of supposition by people who hardly knew her to begin with. The friends she was staying with for the weekend don’t know her. Sepideh knows little about her – not even her full name. And in the end, the person who comes for her doesn’t know her as he thought he did.

The question I’m left asking at the end is, “What’s the point?” As a unique approach to a study of character it’s an interesting film, but it’s all so unsatisfying as it closes with a non-conclusion. I don’t need my stories packaged in a perfect box with a bow on top, but I would like it if they provide me a reason for investing two hours of my time.

2 comments:

  1. I watched the film yesterday and I am convinced it was not Elly. This would provide the perfect solution for the fiance who would then not be disgraced, the friends who would then be sure that she had not left of their doing but of an unfortunate accident and Elly, who gets her freedom. What do you think?

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's been a few years since I saw this film, so I can't speak specifically to your evaluation.

    I don't recall there being any ambiguity as to the identification of the body found in the water. If you're suggesting the dead woman wasn't Elly, then that suggests a rather unbelievable coincidence, no?

    ReplyDelete