Trust, but Verify

A Commentary & Review of ABOUT ELLY
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director
A Film by Asghar Farhadi
Drama-Mystery - Non-rated - 118 min. Iranian (Farsi, with English subtitles). 

It’s August, and in the world of international geo-politics, the Iran Nuclear deal is boiling on the front burner. Leaders of various nation states depict the opposing parties in caricature form. Finding common ground where there is mutual distrust appears to be more than a little challenging.  Missing in the search for agreement, perhaps, is an acknowledgement of just how normal and similar common, everyday people are everywhere. But wouldn’t it be nice, if only for a little while, we could get away from it all, and go on a vacation?

It’s August, so what better time for a movie about a fun-filled seaside weekend vacation amongst family and friends? At least that’s the way the film, ABOUT ELLY begins … The men will dance together, the women will laugh and clap their hands, the children will, well, be children.  It’ll be a great time for this group of educated, up and coming, middle class types with their Beamer, their SUV, their spouses, girlfriends and kids.
It could be the ordinary beginning to a summer vacation story. Except this beach house just happens to be located on the Caspian Sea, about 200 kilometers from Tehran.  And presumably, it's a story all about Elly.

Elly who?  The basic plotline: A school teacher of the children whose last name isn’t even known, and who doesn’t want to stay with the vacationers for more than a day for some mysterious reason, suddenly turns up missing. 

Fearing the worst, it doesn’t take long for those common human foibles like guilt, accusations and recriminations to ensue. Whose fault is it, for whatever has happened; even if whatever has happened is a mystery?  How can things come to an end, even when there is no seeming resolution? When someone or something vanishes without a trace, then what?

Beneath the normalcy of daily routines, interrupted by ordinary occasional catastrophes both big and small, are depicted those traits that comprise the make-up of what it simply means to be human. Except this filmmaker does it with an insightful script and masterful camera work. 

Elly is very pretty in the eyes of her admirer on this brief getaway. She is shy, and more reserved than the other women; who also defer to the men out of cultural conduct.  But she is also mysterious and secretive about something; even when she herself asks her admirer why he and his former German spouse divorced. 

He explained his ex said to him one morning, “A bitter ending is better than endless bitterness.”  Elly pauses for a moment, and then replies, “That’s true.”  If only all the other characters in the film could come to realize this too.
Instead, everyone continues with seemingly endless debate, in search of an elusive answer. Was there foul play? An accident? Did she flee on her own? Then the conversation turns to more implausible explanations.  Did someone do something to offend? Ridicule? Disapprove?  These are values for which American audiences may be less appreciative.

Or was Elly an impulsive type, as well as mysterious, to have acted on some whim? Who was she? And, what is it about Elly?  They call her mother in Tehran, to see if she’s shown up there. Her mother is wary.  “Why would she be suspicious, if she trusted her daughter?” they wonder.

Unable to pin it on anything or anyone in particular, they’ll turn to the interpretation of dreams and nightmares, premonitions, or even fate. When that doesn’t work, a tangled web of lies and deception to hide a simple truth ensues.  Earlier the children participated in the parlor game of charades. Now even the children will be implicated in a real life charade. 
The problem may lie in the fact that trust has nothing to do with having the capacity to verify whether someone is trustworthy or not.  It is only distrust that requires verification, as the film reveals in the end.  jb

The problem may lie in the fact that trust has nothing to do with having the capacity to verify whether someone is trustworthy or not.  It is only distrust that requires verification, as the film reveals in the end.



Side Note: For those who may be unfamiliar with a term that appears in the subtitles, Ululation means “a howl,” sometimes accompanied with dancing, and often made with a trilling tongue sound, or rapidly alternating two high-pitched sounds. In certain cultures, it is common practice at both funerals as a way of expressing grief, or celebrations to express joy.


“Cinema audiences have grown more mature and directors can no longer be content with force feeding them a set of preconceived ideas. Rather than asserting a world vision, a film must open a space in which the public can involve themselves in a personal reflection, and evolve from consumers to independent thinkers. Cinema has no other choice but to take up this approach, as I did when I made ABOUT ELLY.” - Asghar Farhadi

       Right: perhaps this is only the least of this group’s problems ... 

About the Filmmaker
Asghar Farhadi was born in Isfahan, Iran in 1972. While at school he became interested in writing, drama and the cinema. He took courses at the Iranian Young Cinema Society, and later graduated with a Master’s Degree in Film Direction from Tehran University in 1998.