A group of family friends and their kids venture to the seaside for some weekend fun. One of the picnickers is the eponymous Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is known only to the organizer of the trip, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). It all appears to be smooth sailing for the group, until after a day of fun and frolic, tragedy strikes as one of the kids has a near drowning experience and Elly vanishes! All hell breaks loose, chaos and confusion ensues and mystery shrouds the entire episode, as the group struggle to understand what exactly happened to Elly. The disappearance of Elly consequently ends up revealing cracks in the group's seemingly close-knit relationship, as a panic-driven blame game follows, with lies being exposed and new ones constructed in the process.
Those accustomed to the films of Farhadi would instantly recognize the methodical way in which he designs his screenplay. The trick is to give out just the right amount of information at a time and withhold the rest. That ultimately creates the mystery. But in no way is Farhadi cheating his audiences or taking them for granted, or even misleading them. He is in fact, ensuring that his audiences start thinking aloud. So what do we see of Elly in the final few minutes before her disappearance? Just as much as the rest of the group sees. This way, Farhadi demands active involvement from his audiences; makes his audiences a part of the group facing the crisis.
It is amazing how we find ourselves asking the same questions that the lead players in the film eventually end up asking each other. Cleverly written scenes flesh out the script, compelling the viewer to think. Something is said in the group, there is occasional banter and teasing. Some laugh along, while others seem to take a slight offense, but we don't know that for sure. We can only guess from the way the expressions alter; when a smile turns into a scowl, for instance. The scene is conspicuous enough for the viewer to develop some kind of perception on a character's sense of humour (or lack thereof). Only the speculating process occurs much later, and we find ourselves joining in the discussion of the group, analyzing the vanishing!
And when information is revealed in layers, further questions are raised. There is shock and there is surprise. Secrets rise, and lies are invented to cover them up. Whether these characters are attempting to cover each other or save their own skin is gradually rendered irrelevant. But certain lies are a way of life, apparently in the Iranian society where a lot is forbidden, but a lot can't be done without either. Such lies are perhaps considered harmless bluffs. But how innocuous are they really? Farhadi is perhaps making a statement on how forbiddance leads to an abundance of inveracity.
"About Elly" is less about Elly and more about realistic group dynamics. It is an examination of the unpredictability of human behaviour and how an inherent fragility of any human being is exposed in the face of unforeseen panic. Farhadi explores shifting perceptions, and the tendency to surmise and presume at face value. It is not just his characters who do that, the audiences become partners in crime as well. The screenplay is gripping. Farhadi keeps it taut with a sense of urgency and never lets anything settle or sway towards a side. The urgency is reflected in the camerawork, as it takes a freewheeling handheld form, just as the vanishing incident occurs leading to a bedlam that makes you breathless. The viewer is literally thrown in all directions and interesting twists appear in the right places.
While Farhadi is the real hero of the film, one can't take away from the excellent ensemble of actors who make it all a winning combination. Familiar faces, Shahab Hosseini, Peymaan Moaadi and Merila Zarei from Farhadi's masterpiece "A Separation" (2011) appear and impress in their parts. Saber Abar who appears in a bit part makes a strong impression as well. But it is Golshifteh Farahani who shines yet again in a glorious act to trump all acts. What a fine actress, who puts so much heart into her performance, you can't help but applaud her sheer professionalism!
"About Elly" (2009) is a cinematic triumph and Asghar Farhadi is a ray of hope for the modern Iranian film industry. Let us hope he doesn't vanish from Iran like the rest of them.