When I was in my last year of High School we read Der Vorleser (The Reader), Bernhard Schlink’s novel about the moral aftermath of the Holocaust. Not quite as trite as the movie adaptation that finally won Kate Winslet an Academy Award, reading the book was supposed to get the class to engage with what Germans call the “Schuldfrage”, which is essentially the question of who to blame for the Holocaust. It’s obviously a very complicated question. On the one hand you can’t just blame Hitler and leave it at that, on the other, where do you stop once you start to look for guilt in other people? My problem with Der Vorleser is that talking about the “Schuldfrage” is a much more challenging and rewarding exercise when you do it divorced from the novel, which insists on looking at the problem through a stupidly melodramatic coming-of-age story.
Little did I know that, while I was struggling to reconcile the themes and the text of Der Vorleser, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi had figured out how to masterfully explore the question of guilt in a melodramatic package. Yes, the time since I graduated High School has been shorter than the time Farhadi’s About Elly had to wait until it was commercially released in the U.S, but problems with distribution are rarely related to a film’s quality. For this belated but welcome release, we must thank independent distributor Cinema Guild, as well as Farhadi’s rising popularity in the west, which was undoubtedly helped by his thrilling A Separation winning the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film.
About Elly begins as a casual glimpse at life in contemporary Iran. Considering the ominous tone adopted by our media any time Iran is part of the conversation, it’s ok to be surprised when you realize just how much the daily life of the Iranian middle class resembles that of the middle class here in The West. Our story begins with three couples going on a trip. Getting away from the city noise of Tehran means driving up to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Along with the couples comes Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), a recently divorced friend visiting from Germany. And also on the trip is Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a school teacher invited by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), one of the wives in the party.
Getting a house big enough to house all these people in the middle of the summer season requires a little bit of hustling, and thus, an older landlady is told that Ahmad and Elly are newlyweds. Once this little white lie results in a pretty decent place, there is nothing the couples can do except giggle and tease the two bachelors while they play at being matchmakers. Halfway through, however, the movie turns into somewhat of a domestic thriller not unlike the aforementioned A Separation. A tense aquatic set piece makes way for the realization that young Elly has disappeared without a trace. This is where Farhadi’s version of the “Schludfrage” comes to the fore-front, as our protagonists start to point fingers at each other and the lies they told, however inoffensively conceived, transform into guilt.
Some of the more negative reviews of About Elly argue that this second act twist makes it harder for us to empathize with this group of Iranians. That their way of dealing with the tragedy (which is basically to tell more lies) is hard for Western audiences to reconcile. On the opposite side, some of the positive reviews point at the characters’ reaction precisely as the way to empathize with them, as citizen of an authoritarian country where white lies are a mean for survival. There is a sense of superiority in both of these takes that I fundamentally dislike. The telling of lies is not only practical for getting what you want in our society, it is often necessary. Take, for example, the recent story about comedian Mindy Kaling’s brother, who pretended to be black to get into Med School. Putting aside whether or not what he did was morally righteous, the man clearly thought lying was necessary to achieve his goals.
About Elly is about little details spiraling into big drama (again, not unlike A Separation). There are no swelling violins, or exaggerated acting in this movie, but it is full of the twists and turns of a fine melodrama. Farhadi chooses to present the story in ultra-realistic manner, which seems appropriate for a director as interested in human behavior as him. Actually, his biggest strength might be his handling of acting ensembles. Most of the action takes place in one location, so it becomes crucial for the audience to know where each character stands (both physically and emotionally) in relation to the action. Who is and isn’t in the frame, who stands to the side, when the camera cuts, and who it cuts to are all essential elements to unpacking the tensions of these characters. For this, we must also commend editor Hayedeh Safiyari.
Passions grow stronger, and as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that the question becomes not who is to blame, but what is the purpose of blame itself. Populating the story with people of petty desires instead of accomplices of extraordinary evil (I’m referring to the Nazis of Der Vorleser) is one of About Elly‘s strengths. Particularly effective in this regard is the performance of Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh. Not the most likable, but the most intriguing character, Farahani embodies the reasoning behind the use of lies. Even at the end of their rope, when there is practically nothing left for these characters to lose, the telling of a lie still seems worthy. But why? The truth is lost, but what is gained? The argument here seems to be that the question of guilt is not so much about responsibility, or intension, as it is about effect. A decision is not good or bad until after the fact, but no matter how righteous the intension, it can still destroy you.
Grade: 9 out of 10