Combustible Celluloid
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With: Taraneh Alidousti, Golshifteh Farahani, Mani Haghighi, Shahab Hosseini, Merila Zarei, Peyman Moadi, Rana Azadivar, Ahmad Mehranfar, Sabe Abar
Written by: Asghar Farhadi, based on a story by Azad Jafarian, Asghar Farhadi
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Persian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 119
Date: 05/22/2015

About Elly (2015)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lies and Whispers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I know I'm being difficult, but I just can't help being annoyed that someone as brilliant as Jafar Panahi is under house arrest and banned from making films, and that the less interesting Asghar Farhadi gets full support and international distribution. It's not that Farhadi is a bad filmmaker. My favorite of his films is Fireworks Wednesday (2006), and certainly the Oscar-winning A Separation (2011) has its strong points, as does The Past (2013). But he's basically Salieri to Panahi's Mozart; he's the official, court-sanctioned filmmaker, while the true talent is kept in the margins. Time will sort things out, certainly, but right now, no one seems to notice the difference.

About Elly was made in 2009, after Fireworks Wednesday and before the Oscar win, but based on Farhadi's success, it has found American distribution in 2015. I came to it in hopes of finding some hint of what I had previously admired in his filmmaking. I'm not sure what happened to him between 2006 and 2009, but whereas Fireworks Wednesday was intimate and artistic and seemed to be inspired by the prior masters of the Iranian New Wave, About Elly is more hysterical, with more hand-wringing. Information is not doled out subtly like in the previous movie; now it's flung about like gobs of wet tissue.

It's sort of a Big Chill-like story, a gathering of old friends over a weekend. There are three married couples, with a bunch of little kids running around, plus Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who has just divorced a German woman. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has invited her children's kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), in the hopes of fixing her up with Ahmad. At first things, go fine. When weekend lodgings are full, they tell a white lie to obtain a run-down beach house, but they don't seem to mind. They start sweeping up and settling in. Ahmad decides he likes Elly and tells his friends that he's going to propose.

Then comes a scene in which Elly is asked to watch the kids on the beach, and it's all too clear that Farhadi is gearing up for something. I was scared that he was going to drown one of the kids, and he comes close, but it's just a diversion for what comes next: Elly disappears. The friends become frantic, trying to figure out what happened, looking for Elly's things, accusing, and telling more lies. One of Elly's people turns up, and even more lies.

It's all very soapy, and I get the sense that Farhadi is thinking more about the audience's reactions to things than he is about his own artistic impulses; this is what, in my eyes, moves him down a few notches below Panahi and his contemporaries. But currently everyone has agreed that Farhadi is a great filmmaker, and there's no question that he is skilled. His camera floats effortlessly around the beach house and around these characters, simply studying faces, expressions, glances. As I watched About Elly, I found myself frequently caught up in their immoral little dramas. Other viewers and reviewers so far seem to love it, so I will hedge my bets, set aside my own personal hang-up, and give this a reluctant recommendation.

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