University friends reunite for a seaside holiday with their families and the newly returned Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), one of the group who has returned to Tehran after several years spent living in Europe. The energetic Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) extends an invitation to her daughters' young schoolteacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) to join them for the weekend, with the intent of matching the charming Elly with recently divorced Ahmad.  Things take a dramatic turn when one of the party goes missing, and a seemingly harmless white lie causes a catastrophic fallout.  Winner of the Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival

A complex moral tale by a masterful filmmaker.

AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE: For much of this century television sitcom makers have been profiting comically from the escalation of embarrassing consequences that come with trying to avoid being caught out in a minor mistruth or supposedly inconsequential deception. You could call it the David Brent gambit, in honour of The Office’s flailing star. About Elly, the fourth feature film from leading Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, makes use of the same idea, but to powerfully different effect. In the hands of Farhadi, who is best known for 2011’s Academy Award winning A Separation, omission and obfuscation answer to drama’s desire for the truth. The result is deeply revelatory.

This fine film leaves you on the cusp of what might, or perhaps must, come next.

Like all of Farhadi’s works, About Elly is set in his homeland, beginning with a group of friends – mainly married couples with children – arriving at a holiday site at the Caspian Sea for a long weekend. If two people stand out it’s because they’re single: Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) has come home to Iran after divorcing his German wife, while Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) teaches the son of Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). When a booking mix-up occurs, Sepideh's enthusiastic fixing of minor details begins when she tells the site’s managers they must have a house because they have newlyweds – Ahmad and Elly – with them. It’s a small lie that reflects a larger hope – Sepideh is matchmaking on the weekend.

The group is middle-class, their link university, and in that regard the model could be The Big Chill, but Farhadi’s feel for the group dynamic is both naturalistic and nuanced. Offhand comments, teasing Ahmad, make Elly bristle, and when they’re coerced into chores together as a means of talking to each other there’s an uneasy ease to the process. But everything changes when one of the children almost drowns and Elly is missing. The urgency of movement, both in the characters and the camera physically tears away the warm group compositions. In the aftermath bodies are separated, stances are individual.

No-one knows whether Elly was in the water or left the site to catch an early bus home, and the recrimination begins almost immediately, especially once Sepideh’s plans, and minor tricks she played to fulfil come to life. Golshifteh Farhani, who brought some gravity to Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, is riveting as a person whose efforts to do good go so thoroughly wrong, exposing her in ways that reveal her own character. 'Why does no-one say anything here," she screams after her frustrated husband, Amir (Mani Haghighi), raises his hand to her, and the fractures within the group, along both family and gender lines, are shocking in the way they rise so swiftly to the surface.

The situation only grows worse once word has to be passed on to those who loved Elly, and it’s telling how the film subtly draws your attention to the dangerous friction between Iran’s modern life and its traditional values. Was the happiness of the early scenes brittle but true, Farhadi’s film asks, or was it the act of people desperate to believe in what they have. As he’s done repeatedly, this fine film leaves you on the cusp of what might, or perhaps must, come next. And that sense of imminence is as powerful as the way lesser moments acquire significance in retrospect. 'A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness," jokes one character early on, and the words become ominous by the time Asghar Farhadi is finished with them.


Watch 'About Elly'

Saturday 4 September, 11:55am on SBS World Movies
Sunday 5 September, 5:20pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 6 July, 6:00am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

Iran, 2009
Genre: Drama
Language: Persian-Farsi
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini

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