"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
"What is truth?"
About Elly is a strikingly simple premise and story, but don't let its simplicity make you think this is an easy film to watch. Morally complex and devastating emotionally, About Elly at first feels like a Western romantic dramedy, until a pivotal moment reveals the underlying motivations and cultural values permeating the film. It may feel familiar at times, but this is still an Iranian film, through and through, and cultural context matters in a big way. This phenomenal film from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) only affirms that he is a formidable and impressive filmmaker, capable of making ordinary dramas turn into moral parables of emotional and intellectual weight. While the film debuted in 2009, it only made its theatrical release to the U.S. this year, and if it counts as a 2015 film, it's my favorite film of the year thus far.
About Elly's titular character is the kindergarten teacher who has been invited to a weekend getaway at the beach by one of her student's parents, Sepideh. Elly is single and attractive, and Sepideh is less-than-subtle about her desire to set up Elly with one of her single friends, Ahmad, who has been living in Germany and was recently divorced. Ahmad is charming and handsome; Elly is shyly friendly and unassuming. Joined by two other couples and few of their children, the eight adults arrive at the beach house, only to realize that Sepideh hasn't actually made the reservations they all expected. Unfazed, Sepideh tells the landlady that Elly and Ahmad are newlyweds and wanted to stay longer at the beach, charming the older woman with her story. This tiny white lie earns the friends a beach home for the weekend, but it also is the first in a series of half-truths that will spiral into churning waves of turmoil and deceit.
It quickly becomes clear that the three couples and Ahmad are all close friends from college, unintentionally leaving Elly as the lone, uncomfortable outsider in their jokes and banter. It's clear she feels awkward, but Sepideh has high hopes for Elly and Ahmed, despite reservations from both single people. The first act of the film builds a solid foundation for each of the characters, revealing their personalities and traits, foibles and desires. It feels a bit like an indie hipster romance--actor Shahab Hosseini, who portrays Ahmed, could be the Iranian twin of filmmaker Mark Duplass--until a singular moment of dread which turns the entire film's narrative on its head.
I won't delve into the details of this particular moment, suffice to say that it defines the rest of the film and brings the film's title to the fore. Who exactly is Elly, after all? A kindergarten teacher, young and smart and quietly beautiful. But who is she, really? What is she capable of? The seven friends begin to realize that they don't actually know Elly very well at all--Sepideh can't even recall Elly's last name, despite being her child's teacher. As the layers of deceit are painfully torn off to expose the devastating truth underneath, the fidelity and sanity of the seven friends is put to the ultimate test.
About Elly is a devastating and emotionally tense film. Few films have literally caused me to sit on the edge of my seat, but a particular sequence left my stomach hurting afterwards due to the suspense and peril. The performances are all excellent, and each character is wonderfully developed without hogging the narrative. With such a large group of couples, it would be easy for the film to either feel bloated or to leave secondary characters out of the spotlight, but Farhadi wisely addresses each person's emotions and reactions with subtlety and balance. The film's atmosphere feels akin to drowning, a sort of heavy, weighty presence that pushes in your chest and catches your breath as you choke back the shock and tears. There are melodramatic and explosive scenes, but these don't feel like opportunities for actors to really show their chops; it's simply what the situation calls for, and the cast and script are wondrous partners in their affecting performance.
Farhadi's films are masterful examinations of the strengths, weaknesses, and emotional intricacies of marriage, featuring a common thematic thread of cultural clashes and the burden of social propriety. In A Separation, a husband and wife clash over whether or not to live abroad, and their familial responsibilities to their daughter and his father. In The Past, an Iranian man married-but-estranged to a French woman must head to France to sign the divorce papers, even while the woman is romantically involved with another man. In About Elly, there are three married couples, two single people, a divorce and an engagement between them all--all Iranian. (I would consider these films a thematic trilogy.) For each film, what is the right thing to do in an Iranian culture, where marriage and familial connections are viewed far differently than in our individualistic/consumeristic Western paradigm? It's not that Western values haven't affected the Middle East--sometimes the conversation topics between the friends feels like something directly from an indie American film--but the characters' actions and motivations when the situations become complex are distinctly non-Western, yet still understandable and relatable. The closest parallel I can find is that Farhadi is the Iranian Dardenne Brother, an extraordinary filmmaker who continually makes ethically and emotionally weighty films with simple-yet-profound stories. One distinction, though, is the Dardennes offer a bit more grace and catharsis in their films, while Farhadi leaves you in your devastation, with an ache in the gut and eyes filled with tears, in the best way possible. Tonally, the Dardennes tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), an unexpected story of compassion and grace. Farhadi tells the parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13) or the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), layered and difficult stories featuring characters that don't do the right thing, but still offer us wisdom and truth to contemplate.
One scene lingers in my mind: a group of friends struggle to push a car stuck in the sand on the beach. The tires spin, the friends fall in the surf, the solemn looks on their faces of defeat and frustration. In contrast with this image of striving towards freedom is the view of the back of a woman quietly weeping, silent and alone, unable to help the friends in their struggle just as they feel unable (or unwilling) to help with hers. Her honesty--the truth--will set her free. But the truth only comes at a great cost, a willingness on her part to be vulnerable to the point of personal degradation, and the unknown acceptance of her companions.
I opened this review with two verses from the Gospel of John about the nature of truth, references which seem highly applicable to a film about the nature of truth and deceit in our intimate relationships. On the one hand, Christ makes a clear and salvific statement: the truth will set you free! Honesty, confession, authenticity, reality, encounter with the Divine--these are what bring freedom from guilt and oppression, an invitation into life. But Pilate's question is also a worthy one, particularly in our ever-confused and splintering world: what is truth? Your truth? My truth? How can one grasp hold of what is really real and truly true in a climate of hype, deceit, marketing, and shame? Both the statement and the question inform and affect the other in a sort of dialogue--the question posed by our culture, and the compassionate invitation Christ gives, all circling around the truth. About Elly dares to wrestle with our own fear and captivation with the truth, especially when that truth will cause pain in the lives of others. We have all been there. We have all been terrified that some dark deed or thought or comment will expose us, naked and ashamed in harsh light of the truth, Yet the truth will set us free, if we only let it. It just might be a painful and penetrating process to achieve such liberation.