About Elly (Darbareye Elly)

Iran (2009) Dir. Asghar Farhadi

A group of middle class Iranians – made up of three families and two single friends – take a three-day break to a villa near the Caspian Sea. One of the wives Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) insisted on inviting her daughter’s schoolteacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) along with the hope of pairing her off with an old friend Ahmed (Shahab Hosseini), who has recently returned from Germany after a failed marriage.

While Elly takes a shine to Ahmed she feels uncomfortable among all the families and announces she wants to leave, prompting Sepideh to hide Elly’s belongings to prevent this from happening. Later when Elly is tasked with looking after the kids while the others clean up the old villa, one of the kids gets into trouble in the sea and Elly is nowhere to be found. A frantic search uncovers nothing and knowing her family must be informed, the group resolve to fabricate the truth about Elly’s disappearance. As it transpires this is not the only lie being told concerning Elly.

Asghar Farhadi is fast becoming Iran’s most accomplished and venerated filmmaker, with his Oscar winning A Separation being the current apex of both his success and international reputation. As we await with bated breath his next project which is scheduled for next year, this earlier film from 2009 acts as a stopgap for us Brits with a first time release on these shores. While another drama looking into the lives of the middle classes of Iran, Farhadi adds a twist involving the mid film tragedy which slowly evolves into a mystery built around a spiral of lies and deception.

The first forty five minutes of the film shows that the chores and plights of the multi family getaway are an international sufferance and not exclusive to our own experiences. The former law students and the two invited singletons from Tehran descend upon a rural villa only to be told by a housekeeper the villa owners were returning the next day thus their booking would not be honoured.

Holiday organiser Sepideh tells the film’s first lie when she convinces the housekeeper that Elly and Ahmed were newly weds and this was their late honeymoon. This fib earns the party a stay at deserted old villa in need of a good cleaning, which is by the sea so the group take it and off they go, making the most of their manageable but clearly derelict surroundings.

Elly’s disappearance brings about a drastic change in mood as speculation turns to whether she returned to Tehran or if she was dead. Revelations about Elly begin to come to light, adding further intrigue to her sudden departure; it seems that not only did Elly have some secrets, no-one, Sepideh included, didn’t even know Elly’s full name.

As Sepideh’s subterfuge is exposed she incurs the wrath of her husband Amir (Mani Haghighi) while the others – including Peiman Ma’adi, star of A Separation try to concoct a plausible story for Elly’s family, to absolve themselves from any culpability and not dishonour Elly in death, if that was the outcome. Then there is the small matter of the kids, who were the only witnesses to Elly’s final moments. During this chaotic period they are treated as children in the quest for information and adults when needed to keep their traps shut in front of other people.

What Farhadi manages to achieve in the second half of this film is to once again hold a mirror up to the way Middle Eastern families communicate with each other, but this time a simple lie being not just the cause of a problem but also the preferred solution. It explores whether withholding the truth is ever acceptable – with the added irony of the cast being law students hopefully not lost on the viewer – and the spiralling outcome of such an act.

Much of the vital information which would have made this a simple puzzle to piece together is never revealed – such as why Sepideh was so intent on pairing up Elly and Ahmed, especially if she knew Elly’s true relationship status (do they have Facebook in Iran?). Perhaps this may prove unfulfilling when heading towards the conclusion for some but since the conceit is whether Elly is still alive, Farhadi dangles this questions in front of us not so much as a carrot but as a red herring.

There is no question the plot is a familiar one which could easily be transposed to a western or European setting, it is the cultural handling of the situation from the Iranian perspective that makes this a fascinating film. If Hollywood were to have made this once can imagine the glamorous cast overacting, screeching at each other in carefully constructed but humorously melodramatic scenes of forced anguish, no doubt with some intermarriage canoodling thrown in for good measure.

Farhadi thankfully eschews all of this and tells a direct, unaffected and naturally played out story of a group of people in a society where honour has a different meaning and their handling of a tragic situation is reflected in their actions.

About Elly is an intense, occasionally raw and very real experience even for us outsiders looking in on Iranian culture but its emotional depth and moral explorations should strike a chord regardless of nationality. Perhaps not as epic as A Separation or as inadvertently charming as Fireworks Wednesday but still a potent piece of cinema from the Iranian master.