Thursday, March 11, 2010

98. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s “Darbareye Elly” (About Elly) (2009): A vignette of modern Iranian society

When a country such as Iran puts restrictions on its citizens' creativity, it is not surprising that great works of art emerge with a certain vengeance and vigor that free society rarely produce. We saw this in the former USSR, and cineastes were rewarded with the great works of Kozintsev, Tarkovsky and Parajanov. As I write this review, Jafar Panahi, another talented Iranian filmmaker, has been arrested. His friend and peer Abbas Kiarostami has appealed for his release. It is not surprising that the list of Iranian films winning recognition worldwide grows longer by the day.

About Elly won the Silver Bear (Best Director) award at Berlin, one of the top three festivals in the world. Apart from this recognition, the film has already won awards at four other lesser festivals (Asia-Pacific, Brisbane, Tribeca, and the International Film Festival of Kerala) and at Iran’s national festival at Fajr. It was Iran’s submission for the best Foreign Film at the 2010 Oscars.

What is the film about? As in the case of most Iranian films it has no sex or violence and yet provides clean entertainment for adults. It is a tale of how we view others, however close or distant we are. It’s a tale of value judgments we make in everyday life. Now these value judgments could often be colored by small lies or exaggerations that could leapfrog into greater problems that one could ever imagine.

The story line is basically of a young unmarried woman Elly who joins three families on a vacation to the Caspian Sea coastline of Iran. Elly has been invited by Sepideh to spend a night with the three families, Sepideh being one of the three wives in the group. The only relationship established between the two is that Elly teaches Sepideh’s child at school and that Elly could be paired off with one eligible divorced male in the group if the two get to like each other. While the elders are busy playing volleyball or away shopping, a child nearly drowns and is rescued. Elly, who was asked to keep an eye on the kids, disappears. Has she drowned? Has she left for the city as she had wanted to? Her mother, in Teheran, is not aware of where she is vacationing. Why is that?

The tale is cleverly developed from that point of Elly’s disappearance by Farhadi, who is also the co-author of the story and the screenplay-writer. There is another co-author of the tale, Iranian writer-director Azad Jafarian. Thankfully, the group tells the police only facts as they knew at that point of time. The lies emerge later. Even a well-intentioned joke that Elly is a newly wed, a joke stated to get access to an accommodation at the holiday spot spirals into complications later in the film. And so on. The film goes beyond social comment and a thriller. Relationships get shattered. In a way, it recalls the ending of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s recent Turkish film Three Monkeys and easily could be called “Three Monkey Families.”

What nagged me was the situation in the film where parents enjoy themselves but do not keep an eye of their kids playing near the sea, until things go wrong. Is this modern Iran? Is this modern Asia?

Here is a film that has a very talented cast including Golshifteh Farhani, who plays the pivotal role of Sepideh. Ms Farhani is arguably one of the finest actresses from Iran. She has appeared in Mehrjui’s Santoori, Kiarostami’s Shirin and Ghobadi’s Half Moon. It was not surprising that Ridley Scott cast her in his 1979 film Body of Lies. It is not just actors that carry the film but the script and direction are noteworthy. For instance the film has a fascinating kite flying act by the film’s character Elly. The beautiful sequence forebodes the events that follow. Yet this is not the finest example of Iranian cinema. I prefer the works of Mehrjui among the many great filmmakers of modern Iran and, of course, Bitter Dreams, the brilliant debut film of the young Mohsen Amiryousefi. Unfortunately, Asgahr Farhadi, who is definitely an interesting filmmaker, has yet to make a film that can truly rub shoulders with the very best from that country.

While film deserves all the adulation it is receiving and will receive, Indian viewers will recall a similar tale filmed by an Indian director Mrinal Sen from a story by Ramapada Chowdhury. The film was called Ek din Achanak (1989) which competed at the Venice Film Festival some 20 years ago and even received an honorable mention from the jury. Like Elly disappears in About Elly, in Ek din Achanak, a professor and head (played by Dr Shreeram Lagoo) of a family, that included his two daughters and a son, suddenly disappears without explanation or trace. That Mrinal Sen film had also developed a parallel story to that of Farhadi.

While Farhadi’s work can be appreciated in isolation, Indian cineastes ought to compare and contrast the two works separated by 20 years. In December 2009, Mrinal Sen had inaugurated the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala where About Elly was in the competition section and eventually won the Golden Crow Pheasant for the best film. It would have been ironic if Sen was there to hand over the grand prize to Farhadi, which would have marked a 20-year cycle of similar ideas being presented on screen from two different filmmaking nations.

P.S. Two Iranian films Shirin and Bitter Dreams and the Turkish film Three Monkeys mentioned above have been reviewed on this blog earlier. Farhadi's later work Nader and Simin: A Separation has also been reviewed on this blog.