Before the Oscar-winning “A Separation,” Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi made another masterpiece — 2009’s “About Elly,” about a group of friends from Tehran and their children, spending a long weekend at a beachfront home.
One of them, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), has invited her son’s kindergarten teacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), in hopes of pairing her up with her newly-single friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). Although the accommodations turn out to be shabby and run down, with broken windows and missing doors, the group makes the best of it, playing volleyball and charades, sharing a large dinner and going swimming with their kids.
On a drive to town for groceries, Elly and Ahmad get to know each other a little. He tells her about his ex-wife, who broke up with him by saying “A bitter ending is better than endless bitterness.” She tells him about her mother, who relies on her for everything, and admits she may not be able to stay for the entire weekend. She gets a call on her cell but declines to answer it. There are other small bits of seemingly insignificant business that the movie is careful is to show us, and even though they don’t always seem to matter, you still pay close attention, because Farhadi never wastes a frame of film.
And then, the following day, Elly disappears. “About Elly” comes on like an Agatha Christie mystery: Where did she go? How could she have vanished in plain sight while flying a kite with the children on the shore? Why didn’t anyone else see what happened to her? The natural next step would be to call the cops. But everyone realizes they don’t even know Elly’s last name. Her bag is missing, too. And the woman who rented the cabin to them warned them to lock the doors at night, because the seaside is dangerous. If they report the disappearance to the authorities, might not they become suspects?
But gradually, with his graceful, superb storytelling skills and his clear, patient images (his command of framing and composition were already extraordinary), Farhardi starts investing the film with something richer and more meaningful. Sketched into the dialogue and the precise performances by the ensemble cast is a commentary about the snowballing nature of lies and the various reasons we use them, be it to deceive others, avoid betraying cultural mores or simply out of fear of being found out to be something other than what we’re projecting. Like “A Separation,” which used the story of a dissolving marriage to illustrate the unexpected consequences of a rigid, inflexible society, “About Elly” turns what starts out as a breezy comedy into an engaging and substantial exploration of human nature and how sometimes, without intending to, we hurt the ones we love most — including ourselves.