“About Elly,” the fourth feature from talented Iranian helmer-scribe Asghar Farhadi, casts a revealing light on the elaborate culture of deceit that’s part of modern Iranian society with this talky, overlong drama about upper-middle-class Tehranis on a catastrophic seaside holiday. Ironically, the domestic audience for whom the pic would be most appealing won’t be seeing it anytime soon, because it stars banned actress Golshifteh Farahani (who reaped controversy by appearing in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies”). Fests, ex-pats and specialty venues constitute the main audience abroad.
Pretty, warm nursery school teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidousti) is an uncomfortable outsider among a group of old university friends (two married couples, a brother and sister, and a trio of young kids), dragged along to the Caspian by overly insistent Sepideh (Farahani), the mother of one of her students. Sepideh’s hidden agenda, which soon becomes obvious to the others, is to make a match between Elly and Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), newly divorced from a German woman and desirous of an Iranian wife.
As the outing progresses, casually told lies accumulate at an alarming rate and ultimately come back to haunt the tellers. Some have to do with tarouf, a sort of faux-politeness that’s embedded in Persian culture, others with the gender roles, and still others with class differences.
To many, the film’s first half may seem mannered, even boring, with the old pals, particularly the men, indulging in obnoxious, condescending behavior. But after an alarming incident at the 45-minute mark, Farhadi ratchets up the tension, and the pic becomes a mystery thriller of sorts that epitomizes the Sir Walter Scott quote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
While not equaling the depth of characterization of Farhadi’s previous films, “About Elly” takes the complexity of his storytelling to a fascinating level. However, the variable quality of the thesping also prevents the pic from being his best work.
Farahani and Alidousti (who also starred in Farhadi’s “Beautiful City” and “Fireworks Wednesday”) deliver the best perfs on the distaff side. Saber Abar, who makes an appearance in the last reels as Elly’s fiance, registers more strongly than the other men.
Lensing by “Fireworks” d.p. Hossein Jafarian changes tone with the story to become more shadowed in second half, but further editing might have improved the pace and eliminated repetitiveness.