The only thing keeping Asghar Farhadi’s film “About Elly” from consideration as one of the best films of 2015 is that it was made in 2009.
The Iranian writer-director first received international acclaim for his 2011 film “A Separation,” in which the acrimony from a couple’s divorce engulfed not only the entire family but another couple. That was followed by 2013’s “The Past,” another family drama in which long-simmering tensions threatened to undo a separated couple’s shaky truce.
After the success of those films, Farhadi’s 2009 film “About Elly” is finally being released in the United States. The film gets its only Madison screening on Friday at 7 p.m. at the UW-Cinematheque screening room, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free.
Like “A Separation” and “The Past,” “Elly” is a film in which there are no good guys or bad guys, just flawed people drawn into a complex moral dilemma for which there is no easy solution. In this case, it’s a group of moderate Iranian couples and their children who leave Tehran for a vacation at the Caspian Sea.
Everyone is in high spirits, playing volleyball by day and charades at night. Farhadi deliberately takes a very loose and organic “Big Chill” approach to the first act of the film, with dialogue overlapping and characters moving in and out of frame. It’s as if we were just another guest, observing what’s going on.
As we try to sort out who these characters are and how they know each other, we learn that Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), has invited her daughter’s preschool teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) along for the weekend. Sepideh has an ulterior motive; a recently divorced member of the group, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), is back from Germany, and Sepideh hopes to play matchmaker.
And then the tranquil good times of the holiday are rocked by two sudden events. First, one of the children gets pulled out into the sea by the surf. Abruptly, Farhadi shifts his filmmaking style into a handheld, chaotic mode, as the fathers dive into the bobbing sea looking for the missing boy. The scene is heart-stopping and intense, but the boy is rescued and seems to be okay.
Then the vacationers realize that Elly is missing too. Did she drown in the surf? Or did she became offended by something they said or did (she is much more religiously conservative than the group) and leave without saying goodbye? Farhadi is clearly paying homage to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 classic “L’Avventura” with this plot device.
But while Antonioni’s characters ultimately gave up looking for their missing friend, finding out what happened to Elly consumes these worried couples. As the groups puzzle through the options, one revelation after another starts to spill out.
What originally seemed to have been a loose, organic film turns out to have been carefully, almost mercilessly plotted by Farhadi all along, as seemingly trivial lies turn out to have devastating repercussions for the members of the group as Farhadi pulls his plot strands together.
Uniformly well-acted and beautifully shot, using the empty expanses of the sea and sky to ominous effect, “About Elly” easily stands alongside Farhadi’s later work. The only question is: What took it so long to get here?