Last night we watched Asghar Farhadi's 2009 movie, About Elly. Two or three months ago we saw a later film by Farhadi, A Separation. The latter film was something of a revelation. It changed my view of what modern Iran is like completely. (I wrote about it here.) About Elly does the same: apart from the fact that the women wear headscarves all the time, there's little to show that we're in a Muslim country. All the trappings of modern life are visible, and there's (mostly) an easy enough relationship between the sexes.
Both films are about lies and lying. Or alternatively, you might say, about truth, except that truth is very difficult to deal with, and for the characters in these two movies, lies are readily available, and, in the end stand in the way of the characters being able to move forward.
About Elly starts off in a much warmer tone than A Separation.Three couples (and three small children), a recently divorced friend, and a young schoolteacher come together for a weekend of relaxation at a beach house. Irritating things happen, but not enough to stop the friends enjoying themselves.
In the first forty minutes or so, the film seems to be little more than an ensemble piece with a wonderful cast almost improvising the script as they go along. So it appears. Characters come and go across the screen randomly while we try and sort out who belongs to whom (and it took us quite some time; we mismatched two of the couples). It seems that the young wife of the oldest man in the group has invited the schoolteacher along in order to match her up with the divorced man, and things are going fairly well.
Except that underneath all the bonhomie are disturbing currents, none of which we can quite put our finger on. Disaster strikes - but it's not the disaster we think has struck, and Farhadi leaves us hanging for a great deal of the movie as we see the characters deal with what is ultimately a tragedy, by constantly changing their stories, accusing each other, blaming, finding excuses, finally getting to grips with the need to tell the truth, and then not being able to.
Farhadi has an enormous cinematic ease: the camera quietly appears to be just catching things out of the corner of its eye on many occasions, but in other scenes he uses the more disturbing process for the audience of a camera that jerks and shudders in moments of great tension. The actors appear to move as randomly as in real life, yet time after time we see movements in the background that add another dimension to what's being played out closer to us. His control of his cast is exceptional, including the three small children, who play vital parts in the story.
The young wife is played by Golshifteh Farahani, an actress who turned up in another movie we watched recently, The Patience Stone. This was a highly disturbing film set in Afghanistan about a young wife who's husband has been injured in the ongoing fighting, and has gone into a kind of coma. For much of the movie she sits and talks to him, telling him things she could never say when he was alert. It's a considerable indictment on relationships between men and women in that society, and I find it hard to imagine that it would ever be screened in the country it's set in.