Film Review: About Elly

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Berlin International Film Festival --  Competition
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BERLIN -- A taut, involving drama centered around the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, "About Elly" confirms director Asghar Farhadi as a major talent in Iranian cinema whose ability to chronicle the middle-class malaise of his society is practically unrivaled. This sophisticated piece of filmmaking, boasting a starry cast, should find a warm festival welcome, followed by niche audiences abroad, though tightening the first half of the two-hour running time would help commercial prospects.

Working in a highly-controlled film industry that has progressively shut down the most innovative directors over the past three years, Farhadi has miraculously side-stepped the censors in revealing middle-class dramas like "Fireworks Wednesday." In "Elly" the subject is again male-female relations and the web of lies by which innocent lives are destroyed.

A joyful party of friends -- 3 married couples with kids plus the newly-divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) and young kindergarten teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidousti) -- drive to the Caspian Sea for a three-day holiday. The plan, masterminded by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), is to introduce Elly to Ahmad, who's looking for a new wife.

The first lie told is to the elderly lady who rents them a big beach house: that Ahmad and Elly are newlyweds. Given Iranian social conventions, this is understandable, but it will have dire consequences in the end.

In an overly long build-up, the group gangs up on Elly, a sweet girl nobody really knows, to force her into the life of Ahmed, who, by the way, lives in Germany and only has 10 days to find a wife.

Just when all the dancing, horsing around, charades and volleyball games are becoming unbearable, Elly vanishes. From that moment, the tone switches to somber anguish. Has she gone back to Teheran without telling anyone? Or has she drowned at sea trying to save one of the children who was in trouble?

As search boats and divers are called in and the police wait for Elly's body to be washed up on shore, it's hard not to flash on the drama of the missing woman in Antonioni's "L'Avventura." Here, too, the tension is particularly anguishing for Sepideh and her husband, Amir (played by Mani Haghighi, director of "Men at Work.") Only Sepideh knew that Elly was unhappily engaged to be married and had come on the excursion unwillingly.

As the film swings into its final scenes, Sepideh and her friends continue to lie to each other and to Elly's family, even as they get more and more entangled in the untruths. The only way out seems to be ruining the missing girl's reputation. Offshore viewers will find this less compelling, however, than the dismaying portrait writer-director Farhadi paints of a society that runs on bald lies.

Her careless exuberance turning to shock, Golshifteh Farahani stands out of an over-all excellent cast. Hossein Jafarian's hand-held camerawork gives the film an edgy, modern feel.

Production: Asghar Farhadi
Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Taraneh Alidousti, Mani Haghighi, Shahab Hosseini, Peyman Moadi, Rana Azadivar, Ahmad Mehranfar, Saber Abar
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenwriter: Asghar Farhadi
Producer: Asghar Farhadi
Director of photography: Hossein Jafarian
Production designer: Asghar Farhadi
Costumes: Asghar Farhadi
Editor: Hayedeh Safiyari
Sales Agent: DreamLab Films
No rating, 119 minutes