Acclaimed Iranian director and screenwriter Asghar Farhadi completed About Elly (“Darbareye Elly”) two years before his better known film, A Separation; however, the 2009 drama About Elly, while praised at film festivals around the world, has only recently become widely available in the west. It contains many of the same qualities which brought Farhadi so much attention in 2011, when A Separation was released, and received among other awards the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Like A Separation, the story is an ensemble piece, an outwardly simple, low-key human drama, with a personal mystery attached to the storyline. A group of friends travel to the Caspian Sea to spend a weekend at a seaside villa: a married couple with children, a pair of newlyweds, and the recently divorced brother of one of the ladies, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani). Sepideh invites a young woman named Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a teacher at the school her daughter attends, to come along, primarily in order to introduce the unmarried Elly to Sepideh’s newly single brother. Elly seems slightly uneasy with the matchmaking efforts, and suggests she might return home early. She is otherwise is a pleasant houseguest, but the suggestion is planted that not all is as it seems with Elly.
All is well until, following the near drowning of one of the children, Elly is found to be missing. The group search, the police are called in, and rescue boats scan the coastline, but no trace can be found of her, alive or dead. When the police question the guests of the villa, it becomes clear how little they really know about Elly – not even her surname, or what real name “Elly” is short for. The group is uncertain of whether she has drowned, or has run off or simply returned home without informing anyone. The stage is set for a complex study of human nature in response to adversity and the threat of embarrassment.
As more information about Elly’s background slowly emerges, conflicts arise, as the group hold one another responsible for her disappearance, and try to devise ways to avoid blame. Sepideh becomes something of a scapegoat for having invited the young lady. Concerns about Elly’s safety are overwhelmed by a desire to avoid scandal. Lies and alibis are invented and agreed upon until they are too numerous to keep track of, while efforts are still made to determine Elly’s real intentions, and the reason for her disappearance. Even when the mystery is, for the most part, solved, compassion and decency ultimately give way to social pressure and fear of public disgrace.
The cast are all excellent, working well together and presenting very believable characters. The story, and the interaction of various personalities in search of a solution, are absorbing in spite of the simplicity of the plot, which deals with larger issues in the humble but effective form of a minor domestic drama.