DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Iranian film director Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar for his 2011 film, "A Separation, but a film he made in 2009 has just been released in the United States. It's called "About Elly," and it's a mystery that centers on a kindergarten teacher invited on a beach trip by the mother of one of her students. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: What can I tell you about Elly, the central figure though not the protagonist of "About Elly," without giving too much away? She's a schoolteacher, the odd-person-out in a group of attractive, reasonably well-off old friends - couples and some children - spending a few days in a rambling, dilapidated beach house in a seaside town not far from Tehran. Elly's been invited by Sepideh, the young mother of one of her students. And it quickly emerges that the upbeat, gregarious Sepideh hopes the pretty teacher will hit it off with a handsome newly-divorced friend of her and her husband's named Ahmad who now lives in Germany, but just might, she thinks, be tempted home by the right Iranian woman. Elly didn't seem to know that she was being set up and is plainly nervous about something. But it's not enough to dampen the buoyant first half-hour. The friends sing, joke around, barbecue. The men are on the macho side. The women, a tad subservient with headscarves. But this could be the start of any ensemble house party movie made in almost any country. Westerners will be prime to watch arrogant men put in their place and romance bloom. But alas, modern Iran isn't known for beach blanket comedies or movies in which the males lose gracefully. And the director, Asghar Farhadi, makes films that drift inexorably toward tragedy. A third of the way into "About Elly," there's a shocking event. As the mystery deepens, the devastation ripples outward as if from the Caspian Sea to our very own shores. Farhadi directed the Oscar-winning 2011 film "A Separation," a portrait of a country in which there's no common ground. Everyone lies. And all the characters - male and female, comfortable and debt-ridden, secular and fundamentalist - end up shattered, or worse. He made "About Elly" two years earlier and it doesn't have "A Separation's" breadth, its social panorama. In some ways though, "About Elly" is the greater movie - more compressed, more suspenseful, more visually evocative. The themes sneak up on you, though everything you need to know is there from the start, in tiny glances between spouses, in the furtive averting of eyes. The actress who plays Sepideh, Golshifteh Farahani, has a marvelous way of making her character's lies seem not just innocent, but life-affirming. She wants Elly to be happy, Ahmad to be happy, everyone to bond. She doesn't yet realize that the truth will come out, sometimes violently. Abruptly, there's no Elly in "About Elly," her disappearance either straightforward or based on factors we don't yet understand. She could be dead or in Tehran or somewhere between the beach and the city. As the mood turns desperate, fissures open up. People ask, who was she? The scapegoat is Sepideh. What was she thinking, screams her husband, when she invited this stranger to the beach? Who does she think she is to involve herself in other people's affairs? Sepideh becomes gray and sickly. She ages before our eyes. The suspense is Hitchcockian while Farhadi's use of space recalls the great black-and-white films of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. After a terrifying scene in which the characters plunge into the wild sea, the easy, graceful groupings of the film's first third fragment. Individuals now stand on different planes and at odd, unsettling angles as they move closer and closer to a resolution that's crushingly sad. Even more potently than in "A Separation," Farhadi evokes a society in which the alienation is absolute.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.