Thanks to the success of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, his previous film, About Elly, has made it to British screens. It was worth the journey.
About Elly takes the audience out of Tehran’s smog-choked streets and on holiday to the Iranian seaside. A group of friends from university, headed by the charismatic Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) are once again re-united. There are in-jokes, kids to fussed over, memories to be shared. It’s the heart of familiarity – with one exception, Sepideh’’s friend, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Intrigued, the group begin to tease the recently-divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) about his chances with her.
It is one of many harmless moments that, in retrospect, does not look so harmless after all. Because – in one stunning scene – the mood of About Elly cranks up a gear. Disposing of music, scripted hints, and other handy tools, Farhadi instead chooses to close in on Elly who, on her own with the children, runs laughing with a kite.
The laugh becomes increasingly eerie, but the camera does not flinch. And a film about an Iranian road trip tips into a complex moral problem with no easy answer. Sepideh, initially exuberant, becomes a woman haggard with guilt and loneliness. The happy couples snap and fight. There are flashes of heroism and flashes also of despair. Only the children are unperturbed.
As with A Separation, About Elly could have been set in any country, at any time – although the backdrop of the theological state accentuates the difficulty of the decision Sepideh has to make.
But beyond its universalism, what really brings the film to life is the taut discipline with which it is plotted and filmed. Chekhov once said a gun should never appear on a stage unless it is going to be fired. There are no guns in About Elly, but then in Farhadi’s world, it is in the seemingly everyday and mundane that the fire lies.