About Elly : A Moral Mystery
The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, mused Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. It is so human to lie, to make things up. One does it as a matter of course, even when it is not a regular habit. It’s like a spasm in the monologue that is always running in one’s head, a sudden contraction in the verbiage – done involuntarily, almost like a sneeze. A really amusing example is a scene from 2012’s Moneyball. Brad Pitt asks Jonah Hill whether he did the player evaluation he was supposed to do.
Yeah, Hill responds.
Pitt: How many you’d do?
Hill: Actually, fifty-one. I don’t know why I lied just then.
Written in an observant manner like this, About Elly’s screenplay doesn’t have to come up with stock scenes to explain a character, because sometimes a remark is enough. We get cursory insights that ultimately enrich our understanding of people who occupy the screen space. About Elly is written that way. It is the subtlest movie I have seen in a long time.
Asghar Farhadi’s brooding film opens with eight adults (three couples among them) on their way to a weekend getaway. Scenes of frolic and amusement follow. We immediately make out that they are all quite familiar with one another, and have had various such trips behind them. They decide to stay at a not-so idyllic place near the Caspian Sea, because it’s holiday season and no other boarding is available. But that’s not a concern. They sing, they dance, clean the place on their own, prepare food, play dumb charade, bath in the sea, have hookah while being curled up at night, and we observe all of this from between the mise en scene. It is masterfully done. The camera is always gliding past everyone in a manner that seems unrehearsed. The actors have a tough job here because they don’t interact in a shot/reverse-shot scenario like in many movies. They have to be as prepared as stage actors. They have all arrived at this new place and all of them have something or the other to do – search for a broom, clean the food cabinets, heat the fireplace, look after the kids who are always running, arrange beddings, apply tapes on broken windows, cut vegetables for the meal, and while they go about their business they talk, the camera moving from one room to another with orchestrated elegance.The film doesn’t stop for them to get their jobs done so that it can arrive at a more conventional way of unfolding the drama. The drama is already unfolding.
A lot of things are said. We come to know who is related to who. One of the men has returned from Germany and has had a fresh breakup with a German woman. We also learn that the girl we initially thought to be his wife is a stranger of sorts, stranger to all of them. She happens to be one of the couple’s daughter’s school teacher, and even they don’t know her well enough. This is the first time she is on a trip with them. She is invited so that she and the Germany-returned guy could see if they click. She is the eponymous Elly.
Structurally this film is a drama and thriller tied neatly together by a catastrophe, so neatly that you can think of a before and an after when you think of what has surpassed. The first half runs like a holiday movie, and it could have been perfectly involving had it stayed that way alone. But such are not the ambitions here. A curious viewer might have learned that there is a disappearance involved, that the movie has been compared to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. But let me tell you that you have seen nothing like this before. The disappearance scene, when it comes, jolts you up from the laid-back mood it had initially put you into. It is menacing that way, raising tension one knot at a time, as the camera again glides around to create a space that thoroughly involves you, making you invest for the result of the search. The camera moves from the men who are searching in the ocean to those who are shouting and guiding from the shore to those going and emerging out of the house, and as Godfrey Cheshire of rogerebert.com rightly observes: “We [the audience] seem to be looking in every direction at once, desperately”. By the time the scene ends, you would be exhausted, wanting to recline back in your seat, still worried, but needing some rest, as would the characters.
Farhadi uses the disappearance as a device to sabotage the charming surface of the first half to give us a glimpse into the interior, and we don’t like what we see there. While everyone tries to piece together the mystery, what they have as clues are the events from the previous day and night. They meticulously go through what was said and how everyone behaved. What words, spoken in jest, could have caused distress? Was there anything that only one person knew and others didn’t? Is it moral to hide the truth so that it doesn’t upset the others? As the second half frantically unfolds what we see are the events from the first half in a totally new light.
Everything we thought we knew about the characters change in one breath-taking scene after another. And we realize to our great astonishment that how things said in an offhand manner can weave a web of deception, often left unnoticed until subjected to scrutiny. Should they choose to learn, a lot many directors and writers can benefit from Farhadi’s sublime way of handling this material. About Elly is also a lesson in plot construction and direction.
It is not my place to analyse how this film represents Iranian society and how it could be a commentary on the marginalization of women in Iran. I am not well equipped to do that. Rather it has a universal appeal for me. This movie could have been made anywhere in the world and it would still ring true. It turns everyday discourse into an electrifying movie experience. It offers interesting insight on relationships and what binds us together, and shows how fragile our bonds often become. You end up respecting it because it trusts your intelligence.
A ninth character is introduced near the end of the film, and by that time the network of lies is as thick as a spider’s web. I leave it totally to the reader to discover how devastatingly it is achieved. An African proverb can express it much better than I ever could: “With love and care the spider web weaves its spider”.