When I first heard about all the awards and audience buzz surrounding Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (2011), I was excited that finally Iranian cinema had broken through and found common ground with mainstream audiences. This is not to say that Iranian cinema has been lacking. Quite to the contrary. There have been a number of wonderful and unforgettable Iranian films made over the past three decades or so. Yet with a few notable exceptions, such as the brilliantly moving Colors of Paradise (1999), many of those films have not resonated much with audiences; they have been more cerebral and - for a lack of better word - artsy films that mainly appeal to critics and are celebrated at international award ceremonies.
So all the hype around A Separation raised my expectations and unfortunately, the film did not fulfill them. I thought it was overall a good movie, but it fell short from being exemplary, especially considering that this country has made much better films than that. Only recently, I watched About Elly (2009) by the same director, which incidentally was made before A Separation but was released only afterwards. Hence, the general confusion about this film being the follow-up effort of the critically acclaimed Oscar-winning film.
About Elly left me in a state of shock and amazement. What could have been a slow and brooding film turned out to be an engaging and moving masterpiece! It starts off with a number of young people going on vacation to the seaside of Iran; they are mostly couples except for a recently divorced man and a young female teacher. Word has it that the two are supposed to be a match with all the surrounding friends caught up in playing the matchmaker part.
Although it is a little confusing to have so many characters at first, the film-making did not feel dull but very inspired indeed. They fool around by cracking jokes, making puns and dancing every now and then. There is a charade scene that in other director's hands would have probably felt redundant or boring, but it is entertaining and charming here, showing us the jolly and playful nature of its characters, and by extension of the Iranian people as well.
This is something I find lacking in most if not all Iranian cinema. Certainly, even A Separation had imbued its characters with a somber and heavy mood. Other films show extreme poverty and misery. Not that this is not the case, but those films are too focused on showing only one side of the country and ignoring the other more playful sides and aspects of the Iranian people.
And it was refreshing to see onscreen that yes, the Iranians also have materialistic needs and have Louis Vuitton bags and nice cars. This might be a personal digression, but as an Iranian-born I am tired of having foreign people firmly believe that we all live in huts and shacks the same way as a Canadian I do not like the stereotypes about all Canadians supposedly living in the woods and wilderness surrounded by bears and moose.
Yet about less than halfway through the movie About Elly, the joyful mood suddenly gives way to panic, confusion, and grief. One of the most breath-taking, heart-pounding moments and an example of virtuoso film-making is the scene of the drowning child (who incidentally has the same name as me, and coincidentally I had a drowning experience myself at that precise age: I am OK; as to the child in the movie, you need to watch it to find out). After this dramatic incident, the main character Elly simply disappears.
I will not spoil anything except to say that from then on the plot becomes as twisted and as complicated as a Shakespearean play or a Hitchcock thriller. Layers and layers of truth and deception are exposed and the viewer is given few moments of respite. This movie resembles Antonioni's groundbreaking L'Avventura (1960) only in plot; in spirit it is more a psychological mystery movie. This is a great example of an art film that entertains while it inspires and that unlike many other foreign films provides an ending that offers some kind of closure. I am not a fan of open-ended films that leave it to the viewer to figure it all out. Notwithstanding, there is still sufficient room for discussion and interpretation.
All in all, this movie has it all. It has great and solid directing and acting, and it makes us care for the characters. In fact, even though there are a number of them, I found them all interesting in their own idiosyncratic ways. The film is not really about Elly, or about Iranian society or even about gender and relationships. It is about us, the viewers, and the judgment and decisions, the lies and deception we engage in for different personal reasons. I am sure the audience can easily find something to like in this gem, and it surpasses many other Iranian films, particularly the generally acclaimed A Separation.