17 October 2009

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '09: ABOUT ELLY (FARHADI, IRAN)

To my mind, Iran currently has one of the most interesting and important national cinemas in the world right now, so About Elly is a film for which I had, perhaps, unreasonably high expectations. On first glance, it's rather unlike what we've become accustomed to thinking about when we think about Iranian cinema; and this left me feeling a bit annoyed and dismayed when I left the theater. But some movies, you know, have an odd way of hanging around in your mind, as other movies fade and become indistinct, and About Elly has sure enough started to reveal itself as every bit as challenging and layered as anything else out there, even if its concerns aren't quite the same as some of its country-mates (arguably a good thing), nor does it boast the same formalist bravery of e.g. something by Abbas Kiarostami (and I think it's really this latter point that bothered me so much).

Merely describing the film's plot is apt to run the unwary critic straight into the gaping mouth of Spoiler City, so I must pick carefully: a large group of friends, most of them in the form of couples and some of those with children, all travel to the coast together for a vacation. If this group has a leader, that woman would be Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), but in general they seem to function as a fairly well-rounded democracy, as evidenced when it turns out that the hotel they were planning on staying at has no room, and the only choices are to stay in a ramshackle house in desperate need of cleaning, right by the water, or go all the way home. They stay - not without some dissension - and get straightaway to the work of cleaning up, and then to enjoying themselves.

Now, among this group of people is a man named Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who is in from Germany with a foundering (or rather, well and truly foundered) marriage back at home. Sepideh has some idea of setting him up with Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a schoolteacher. Unfortunately, she had this idea without first discussing things with Elly, and... wait, I just passed an off-ramp for the Spoiler City suburbs.

Things are generally quite peaceful and friendly for a while, until we get somewhere near the half-way point of the movie The rest of this paragraph might well count as giving away too much, but I can't think of anyway to talk about the film without saying it. Skip ahead if you want, I'll try to keep vague after this paragraph. One of the children gets into a spot of trouble while playing in the water, and Elly is the first one out to help, but in the confusion of the rescue, Elly herself goes missing. Nobody can say to a certainty that she drowned, mind you, and as time goes by it seems increasingly unlikely that her body wouldn't have turned up if she had. Meanwhile, the group starts into some soul-searching about the missing woman, and discovers some revealing, surprising facts about her relationship with the rest of the party. Even more surprising- oops, that's the sign for the Spoiler City limits. I have to stop now.

There's a great deal about the scenario of About Elly that wouldn't seem inherently compelling if this were an American film, but given that it was made in Iran, it makes quite an impact. The gender dynamic on display within the group for a start, which is kind of vaguely traditional (the women all wear headscarves), but for the most part speaks to a fairly progressive viewpoint, without coming across as remotely "political" in any overt sense - the film does not seem in any way to be a progressive tract, like most of the Iranian films I have seen with women in prominent or lead roles - certainly counts as something special. Indeed, everything about the characters' behavior feels much more Western than, certainly, a Westerner's stereotypical idea of Iranians, or for the most part, the behavior we get to see in Iranian cinema (apparently Ahmadinejad is enthusiastic about this film, which is a bit inexplicable).

And we see a great deal of the characters' behavior, make no mistake, and here's where the film's interest transcends any of its national characteristics. Writer-director Ashgar Farhadi is above all else interesting in remaining a fly on the wall, spending nearly all of the two-hour film in watching people behave and talk. Incidents - specific, unmistakable, plot-driving incidents - are very few; mostly we are just invited to listen to the various people in the group, who start out blending into one another a little bit (it doesn't help that we're given our main introduction to everybody in one of those "Okay, your name, your name, then your name, your name, and your husband, your name" scenes) and end up distinguishing themselves not because they have remarkable and obvious differences, but simply because we spend so much time with them that their differences become apparent slowly, through familiarity.

The film excels first and above all at presenting a group and a group dynamic, then sitting back and watching that group go through a specific crisis. Odd, how for a visual medium, so few movies are about that: about just watching. The film's tone is primarily, even exclusively, reflective; observing human behavior simply because humans are interesting, and in this respect, About Elly is rarer than it ought to be. It's successful as a movie because it is successful at depicting people, never in a particularly good or bad light, but just as people.

Accordingly, the questions the film raises are largely involved with how we interact with others: are there ethical considerations in lying, or more specifically, withholding information? How do we know that it is right to intercede in others' lives? As the group thinks and talks about Elly, who emerges as the most mysterious and intriguing off-screen character in a long time, these are the issues that start to bubble up, both voiced and unvoiced. Farhadi answers none of these questions, but he presents them so deftly that it is impossible not to think about them in the hours and days after the movie has stopped running. It is the best kind of theme-spinning: the kind that lets the audience draw conclusions not only from the film but from life.

It is absolutely a simple film, with a much restrained directorial style; but its simplicity is effective and affecting. I have been touched more by About Elly than most of the films I've seen this year, even ones I loved a great deal more; it has a subtle way about it that gets under you skin and stays there, not insistently like an itch, but comfortably and invisible, like a familiar tune. The more you think about it, the more it becomes a deep and rich experience.

8/10

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