“About Elly” is the kind of ensemble film that recalls Robert Altman (“Pret a Porter,” “Gosford Park”) or an early Kenneth Branagh (“Peter’s Friends”). A group of characters come together on screen, casual conversation is tossed about, relationships are forged or renewed or become strained — and with each incident, personalities and agendas are revealed like invisible ink on onion-skin paper.
The surprise is that “About Elly” is an Iranian film, one of the very few to make it to the international film circuit without the cachet (and/or baggage) of an overt political message. This is intelligent, sensitive filmmaking, and director Asghar Farhadi (“Fireworks Wednesday”) keeps the intricacies personal until the last frame, avoiding the temptation to go the route of social criticism.
There are plenty of opportunities to do so; half the characters are university- educated, upper-middle-class women from Tehran who, for all their experience and knowledge, adhere to tradition by doing the housework and keeping their chadors wrapped firmly around their heads. There are also scenes of adults leaving small children behind on a beach to go shopping or play volleyball — these are astonishingly bourgeois moments that practically scream for some kind of social commentary.
But political pontification (however well deserved) is never the issue in “About Elly.” Rather, it examines the dynamics of long-standing friendships and the importance they may or may not have in individual lives.
At the start of the story, friendship is something that’s trusted but taken for granted, as reliable as a favorite hoodie and as easily forgettable. A group of wealthy Tehranians — college friends from way back — pile into their cars and drive off to a seaside resort for the weekend. Their easy, casual banter speaks of long-valued relationships, but their conversations reveal a certain distance and coolness — they’ve all already matured and gone their separate ways, and the weekend spent at a large, dilapidated house emphasizes the passage of time and their current adult responsibilities.
The core member of the group is Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani, who had a turn in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies”), a born matriarch who’s convinced she knows what’s best for everybody. Sepideh has engineered the holiday to cater to everyone’s tastes, and has also taken it upon herself to play matchmaker between Ahmed (Shahab Hosseini), her pal who’s getting over a divorce, and the lovely Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), who is a newcomer to the group and the schoolteacher to Sepideh’s daughter.
Once they’ve been introduced, Ahmad gears himself to romance the hell out of Elly, while she’s confused and a little annoyed at his attentions and the knowing smiles of the rest of the gang. As the women try to draw her out, Elly retreats into her shell while maintaining a cheerful facade. She never seems truly comfortable though, and is at her most relaxed when flying a kite on the beach — symbolizing, perhaps, a yearning for independence. She tells Sepideh of her need to leave and take the bus to Tehran, but her hostess, in her gentle yet firm way, orders her to stay.
And then disaster strikes — one of the children nearly drowns while the adults are having a roaring good time, and in the pandemonium that follows, Elly disappears. Her bag is missing too, but her cell phone and other valuables have been left behind. When the police finally arrive, Sepideh realizes she has almost no personal information about Elly to give them. As for the rest of the group, she was just a nice, pretty stranger who could have been Ahmad’s new wife, but who upped and left the minute things went wrong.
Who was that girl? Not even her mother (whom Ahmad finally tracks down) knows where Elly is, or even where she was supposed to have been that weekend.
Ultimately, the story turns out to be less about Elly than the secret goblins stashed inside the hearts and minds of each and every member of the group. They go to great lengths to keep them hidden, but some ugly heads pop out from time to time.
The longer Elly remains AWOL, the more effort it takes to keep their inner monsters from hurling the most wounding insults, flinging blame, lying through their teeth. Sepideh, especially, is at her wits end trying to keep her marriage intact and save face at the same time.
But Farhadi’s gaze isn’t accusatory: If anything, it’s understanding and tinged with sadness. One memorable line goes, “A bitter ending is better than a bitterness without end.” And though all the characters might agree with that sentiment, they flail desperately to avoid both fates.