“A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.”
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) was a film that managed to gain a lot of supporters because it touched upon numerous themes that are universal and not just confined to contemporary Iranian life, including guilt and class justice. Unlike contemporaries such as Jafar Panahi and Rafi Pitts, Farhadi’s films feel as though they just happen to be set in a country like Iran rather than being defined and sometimes overwhelmed by their setting. Yet by aiming for something slightly more narratively pleasing, and working through the system rather than from outside it, Farhadi has ended up with honest and progressive portrayals that speak to what it is to be Iranian nowadays.
Released in the UK as a result of the success of A Separation, About Elly moves proceedings away from Tehran and towards the shores of the Caspian Sea, where three middle class couples are on vacation. The trip is planned by Sepideh, who brings along her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, in order to introduce her to Ahmad, a divorced friend, visiting from Germany. Elly is immediately depicted as an outsider who is constantly trying to impress the others, even though they all welcome her into the group with only a little hesitation. The first 40-50 minutes of the film takes place without much incident and this makes the event that drives the rest of the picture all the more tense and explosive. It happens almost in a hazy flash but has repercussions that come to define the next hour of the film.
The film has a three act structure insofar as it begins life as a drama before suddenly becoming a surprising thriller and then settling back into a more dramatic atmosphere towards the end. The cast is without fault but particular recognition should go to A Separation’s Peiman Ma’adi, who once again shows what an intense actor he is. Hossein Jafarian’s photography is subtle and unfussy, and through this manages to ensure that the deserted beach-fronted villa the friends are staying in never seems either idyllic or peaceful. I did feel as though certain questions that Farhadi raised throughout the film, both narrative and thematic, were left unanswered by the end (not sure if this was intentional) and that the film sometimes lacked the punch that A Separation possesses, but About Elly is nevertheless another intriguing entry in an already impressive filmography.