Director of Photography:
Running time: 114 minutes
Original title: درباره الی
Transliterated title: Darbareye Elly
Because her name is right there in the title, we do all we can in the first act to understand who this mysterious young woman is who has been invited along to the beach by a few other families. She reveals little about her own life, except for being the teacher of the one family’s daughter, but whenever she is not looking, the others talk about her, and in particular they ask the one bachelor in the group, Ahmad, how he is getting along with her.
The woman who invited her, and who seems to be the closest to her, is Sepideh, who gives the impression of being in control of the group and makes decisions she expects everyone else to obey and agree with. But once disaster strikes and Elly goes missing, Sepideh admits she doesn’t even know Elly’s full name. And whatever other details about her life she has, she refuses to share with the group.
Sepideh is a very unlikeable character, at first because she assumes to know best for the increasingly awkward Elly, who wants to leave but is told not to by Sepideh, and then because she obviously knows much more than she is letting on but instead keeps critical information to herself in the name of “honouring” Elly, who has disappeared.
The comparison may seem appropriate, but this is far from being a Persian version of L’Avventura. Whereas Antonioni’s film was much more cynical about human relationships and their longevity even in the face of tragedy, director Asghar Farhadi’s (whose next film, A Separation, would bring him to worldwide attention) About Elly revels in the opposing forces in such a group of individuals who from the outside may seem to constitute a very orderly unit.
Sepideh plays a central role in this enduring tension, as even when she tells her side of the story, or Elly’s story, decisions are made to protect others by continuing the lies, or modifying the official story, which inevitably ends up too weak to be credible and makes these people, most of whom have the purest intentions, look like outright liars. One person who doesn’t lie is the straight-talking Peyman (played by Peiman Ma’adi, who starred as one of the two main characters in A Separation), and the dynamics between him and his wife, Shohreh, throughout the film are fascinating to watch.
Peyman’s son, Arash, nearly drowns when Elly is supposed to watch over him. Meanwhile, she is busy flying a kite on the very same beach. She seems happy but also completely disconnected from her responsibility to watch over the children. Granted, this momentary happiness only masks the pain she feels at having been told to stay put by Sepideh, and in an extended sequence of shots showing her smiling face in close-up as she runs with the kite across the beach, the background completely blurred, we realise her inner world has taken over completely.
The circumstances surrounding Arash’s near-drowning remain murky, as the adults only have the children as witnesses and they are still trying to find more details about Elly’s whereabouts. Shortly before her disappearance, she had said she wanted to leave and go back to Tehran, even if she had to accomplish that on foot. But would she have left her bag and her phone, and not even said goodbye to anyone there? That is the question that hangs above the proceedings for most of the film.
We are not only interested in whether Elly has died or not, but what her disappearance reveals about the relationships between the characters as a result of this tragic event, and while Sepideh certainly bears most of the blame for instigating a sequence of events that turns toxic, the temporary solutions found by family and friends to try and protect her or themselves are always insufficient, insofar as they are always only half-truths or lies.
The image of a car stuck in the wet sand on the beach ends the film, and it is a fitting visual metaphor for the sticky territory in which the characters have unwittingly become entangled because of a few simple missteps, despite Peyman’s best efforts to get to the truth and tell the truth to those who deserve to know it.
One such person is someone very close to Elly, who is much more sympathetic than we are led to believe, and his appearance late in the film proves once more that it is better to know the truth than to hear stories told by others, however close they may appear to be to the tales they are telling.
About Elly is a very engaging ensemble piece that has a handful of characters who are frustrating to watch because we know they are behaving in a way that slows down the gathering of information, but in the end, however much we disagree with their methods, we can understand why they are acting in such a way. Farhadi gives us tiny glimpses of individual characters doing things on their own, isolated from other people, to suggest joy or secrecy or intense pain. He does this without spending excessive energy to highlight a fact easily surmised from the film itself: This is a simple story rendered complex by the actions of people who have their reasons, and the mix of reasons and individuals almost inevitably leads to tension of which the consequences are often impossible to predict.