Editor’s note: Our review of About Elly originally ran during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival way back in 2010, but we’re re-posting it now as the film finally opens in limited theatrical release.
“How strange. You bring a guest from Tehran without knowing anything about her…?”
A group of college friends arrive at a seaside villa for a relaxing weekend, and while they’ve all obviously known each other for some time there’s one partial stranger in the mix. Elly is a friend of Sepideh who has invited her along in the hopes that she strike up a romance with one of the single men. A reservation mix-up leaves the group far from the other tourists in a villa with broken windows and sketchy locks, but they make do and settle in for a weekend filled with food, games and laughs. But the calm ends when an idyllic afternoon is shattered in a scene of pure chaos and uncertainty as one of the children, seemingly left unattended, is found floating in the ocean. As the boy is carried ashore the realization hits that their problems are far from over. Elly has disappeared.
This is one fantastically constructed film. The first thirty minutes lull the viewer in with humor and a knowing banter between friends as we get to know the different personalities and relationships. There are no dark dramas or portents or doom here… just friends and families having a good time. Once Elly disappears the orderly construct begins to crack beneath the pressure. Blame is tossed around like sand on the beach, small lies grow in size and number, and the mystery of Elly’s disappearance becomes compounded by the mystery of her life.
The actions and reactions from the entire cast are pitch perfect. The panic that ensues when young Arash is found floating lifeless between the waves is believable and all-encompassing. As the concern, fear and realizations turn towards the possibility that Elly herself has drowned trying to save Arash the intensity of the situation is visible on their faces and palpable in the air. While all of the performances are strong, the true stand-out is Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies) as Sepideh. Her character endures a roller-coaster of fear, guilt, shame and something possibly more malicious. It’s as powerful a performance as you’re likely to see this year and along with the film itself, it’s not to be missed.
This is universal film-making of the highest order. These characters speak a foreign language, but their situation is identifiable and recognizable to us all. An endangered child. A missing person. Suspicion and doubt falls equally among the friends as their fear and defense mechanisms kick in to distance themselves from a possible crime or offense. That the suspense lasts as long as it does without a killer stalking the halls or a ticking bomb is a tribute to writer/director Asghar Farhadi‘s talents with the material and the actors.
One of the many joys of international film festivals is seeing movies that help shatter preconceived notions about countries you only know from the news. About Elly is not only one of the best movies at this year’s SFIAAFF, it’s also one of the most enlightening. Farhadi has crafted a film that stands tall beside the best films from any country including the US. It’s enthralling, suspenseful, engaging, and full of life and the fact that it comes from a country we usually see only in a negative light is an eye-opening gift not only to film-lovers but to lovers of life as well.