Directed by Ashgahr Faradi (2009)
The best and most evolutionary Iranian film I’ve seen this past decade - one that thankfully didn’t have to lean on the innocence of children in order to fly past the censors - was “A SEPARATION”, which director Ashgahr Faradi made to much acclaim in 2011. Deservedly hailed as a masterpiece of complex, wound-tight sociological filmmaking, and an Academy Award winner to boot, it’ll long reign as a near-masterpiece in the eyes of the fairly sizable world audience who saw it. Made a couple of years earlier, his “ABOUT ELLY” is nearly as good. It got a 2015 release in the US, six years after it was completed, and it mines similar marital and societal dynamics to create a truly gripping and powerful mystery, reminiscent of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura”.
At its center is a missing young woman, Elly, who travels to a ramshackle seaside vacation spot with several couples (with their children in tow) whom we learn she really doesn’t know all that well. For the first half of the film, Elly’s merely a small piece in a cacophonous unspooling of vacation planning amongst the various young husbands and wives, who laugh, argue, tease and play with each other and the kids in what’s obviously a huge psychological de-stressing exercise from the demands of work in the big city, Tehran. This is a side of the Iranian middle class that felt very real and completely underexposed to clueless Americans such as myself. If the film ended there, it would have a been a fun and revealing lark, and would have been a lot like the meandering Iranian films of the 90s and early 00s that really didn’t go much of anywhere, but for which you were thankful for the ride in any case.
One of the couples is trying to set Elly up with a recently-divorced man traveling with them who’s just moved back from Germany, and after some innocuous flirting, Elly announces she’s leaving early - but not before she’s asked to watch the children while they play in the surf, just for a few minutes. It’s here where the entire tenor of the film changes, on a dime. A child nearly drowns, and Elly completely disappears. The skies darken in line with everyone’s mood. The laugh-filled vacation turns abruptly into a homespun procedural in which the various couples try to figure out whether she’s dead or merely missing. The entire film hangs in the balance for this exceptionally tense hour, during which time we get some lessons in just where women stand in the Iranian pecking order, while also witnessing the eggshells that the couples feel they need to walk on in their dealings with the police. When a new character is introduced who helps to clear up what happened, his arrival is like a turd in the punchbowl for all concerned.
Faradi’s more recent “The Past”, from 2013, just moved up my maybe-I’ll-watch-it list to a definite must after seeing what he’s capable of in two stunning films.