by Sara Saljoughi
Asghar Farhadi’s latest film About Elly screens on Friday, April 9th at 7:30 pm as part of the Walker’s Views from Iran series.
About Elly has a deceptively simple premise: a group of middle-class Tehranis go on a short vacation to the Caspian Sea. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is the most gregarious of the group, as well as its leader, and her main objective for the trip is to play matchmaker to her daughter’s kindergarten teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidousti) and her friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) who is newly divorced and visiting from Germany.
By setting the film in Shomal (which literally means “north” and is how that region of Iran is known to the rest of the country) Farhadi is able to work with a narrative that is already structured both psychologically inside and physically outside the imaginary of Tehran’s urban milieu.
The seaside towns of Shomal have long been a popular vacation spot for Tehran’s middle and upper classes thus as a destination for the group of friends, the region is a site that allows them to escape the conventions of Tehran society while also recreating them in very distinct ways.
Elly is the key figure through whom this simultaneous action of familiarization and estrangement operates. For much of the film, she is a stranger; as an outsider, she does not understand the group’s jokes and she resists their attempts at collegial intimacy. Elly’s position outside the group is also responsible for a general lack of interest in her, other than the friends teasing and prodding Ahmad to ascertain his opinion of her.
This all changes in a single moment, catapulting Elly to the center of the film’s action, though she maybe no longer visible in that action. The moment she is physically removed from the screen, all of the other characters’ actions revolve around the idea of Elly.
It is here that traces of classism and moral judgements about Elly’s sexuality emerge; the fact that she was not known suddenly becomes of utmost importance.
Strongly reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Asghar Farhadi’s film poses difficult questions about truth, responsibility, social survival and what happens to relationships in the aftermath of crisis. Golshifteh Farahani, a rising star in Iranian cinema, makes a stunning turn as a conniving Queen Bee character who positions herself as innocent and benevolent, which allows her to make a variety of decisions that catapult the rest of the group into tragedy.
About Elly garnered Farhadi the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival and follows on the heels of his acclaimed Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbeh Suri ), which also focuses on strained relationships among the Tehran elite. About Elly is a powerful opener for the Walker’s Views from Iran series and should not be missed.
Sara Saljoughi is a graduate student in Comparative Studies in Discourse & Society at the U of M. Her areas of research are cinema, critical theory, Iranian studies and postcolonial theory. She has published film and music reviews in Exclaim!, Broken Pencil and Foxy Digitalis. She blogs at http://sarainamerica.blogspot.com/