Director: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Peyman Moaadi, Mani Haghighi, Ra'na Azadivar, Merila Zare'i, Ahmad Mehranfar, Saber Abbar
Running Time: 1:59
Release Date: 4/8/15 (limited); 5/8/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 7, 2015
It is impossible to truly know another human being. Hell, it's difficult to really know oneself. Then there's the complication of the little lies we all tell each other and ourselves every day—the ones that make life a little easier, that make us seem more important than we actually are, that keep a potentially tense or explosive situation at bay, that protect the feelings of another person, etc. About Elly is about those little lies and the way they expand into big ones. By the end of the film, people who thought they knew each other well discover that, where it counts, they know about as much about those people as they do a complete stranger.
It's appropriate, then, that writer/director Asghar Farhadi frames this great, inescapable mystery of the human experience within the confines of another, lesser—but still significant—mystery. One minute, there's a young woman, who is a complete stranger to a group of friends, playing on a beach. The next minute, she has disappeared.
No one knows where she has gone. She could have drowned. She could have been kidnapped. She could have simply run off without telling anyone. No one knows for certain. No one has a reasonable guess. Every possibility seems like a legitimate one, because they don't know who this woman actually is.
Would she have risked her life to save someone, or is she the type of person who inadvertently would put someone in danger through her absence? Is she the kind of person to run away from an uncomfortable situation, or is there something or someone more important somewhere else? What would have made her that uncomfortable in the first place? What is important to her anyway?
The only things the majority of this group of friends knows about Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) are their first impressions. She seems kind. She's lovely. She's a teacher. She's concerned about her mother in Tehran, as she had heart surgery two months ago. That's about it, though.
Elly has joined this group on a weekend trip to a seaside lodge at the invitation of Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), whose daughter is one of Elly's pupils. The others, we learn through a game of charades, know each other from law school.
There's Sepideh's husband Amir (Mani Haghighi), as well as two other married couples. Peyman (Peyman Moaadi) and Shohreh (Merila Zare'i) have two children, and Nazy (Ra'na Azadivar) and Manuchehr (Ahmad Mehranfar) have a daughter. Sephideh thinks Elly might be interested in Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), their divorced friend who moved to Germany after graduation and is visiting for the weekend. Ahmad says that he will propose to Elly if all goes well this weekend. It could be a joke, but considering the culture and how little we know about him, we should probably take him at his word.
Come to think of it, those details are the extent of what we know of the rest of these characters. There are a few details that seem insignificant but turn out to be important in terms of where the film goes. Sepideh says she has made reservations at the villa, but upon arrival, the group learns that the place is booked. She rationalizes that no one would have wanted to go if they had known. In order to appeal to the manager's sympathies (as well as to get around Iran's religious laws), Sepideh says that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds—a lie to correct an earlier lie. The manager offers them a guest house in dire need of renovations. Sepideh doesn't ask Elly about this false arrangement, and everyone jokes about it when Elly isn't nearby. She hears the jests.
We get the sense that Elly has an independent streak, but just as her character starts to assert herself against the presumptions of her companions, she is gone (after an engrossing and intensely intimate sequence of a water rescue that haunts the rest of the film). For the remainder of the narrative, the other characters fear the worst, hope for the best (although with the caveat that they are angry that she would leave and put their children in danger), and guess at her possible motives for abandoning the trip and them.
The police are stunned that no one in the group knows Elly's surname or any basic information that could help locate or, in the worst case, identify her and contact her loved ones. The evidence of her fate is unclear, although we learn that other characters have ulterior motives to keep some of that evidence hidden.
They're tiny lies, like the location of Elly's bag and cellphone or if someone has called her mother. When stacked upon each other and within the context of a missing woman, though, the revelations and their ramifications become staggering. There are layers upon layers of deception here, and they only become worse with the arrival of Alireza (Saber Abbar), a man who knows Elly. Some in the group know he is lying about his relationship to her, but they must keep up with his charade in order to hide to their own.
This is a simple story, but Farhadi imbues it with interpersonal conflicts that erupt naturally as each of the characters' beliefs about his or her companions or spouse are challenged. He gives us a clear-headed presentation of the mixed emotions that each character is experiencing (His camera doggedly stays on a figure or face far past the point of discomfort, leaving us no option but to feel sympathy or pity for the character). Behind it all is pragmatist's comprehension that no one involved is purely guilty or innocent. How, after all, would such assignments of blame benefit anyone in this scenario? No matter what Elly's fate may be, there is only pain waiting at the end of this for most, if not all, of these characters.
The film's intrigue comes not from the mystery of Elly's departure. It comes from watching the lies—primarily told and retold with good intentions—collect and unravel. The film's impact is not in the ultimate answer to Elly's fate. It is in the steps leading up to it, as we watch these people destroy themselves and their relationships in a foolhardy attempt to make the best of a dire and likely tragic situation. About Elly is devastating because the lies here are simultaneously necessary, useless, and so dreadfully familiar.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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