Image courtesy Cinema Guild Pictures.
UPDATE: The Grand Illusion has decided to hold this over until June 4th! It's still viewable!
In 2009, a new Iranian film was making the rounds at the festivals. Most Americans at the time didn't know who Asghar Farhadi, the director, was, and I don't just mean the ordinary moviegoing populace. Even the stuffy film literati of that year wouldn't have recognized the name. Farhadi had only made three previous features, one of which never made it past a few small European festivals– and I don't mean the ones we hear about, but tiny affairs in Denmark and the Czech Republic– while the other two films had blink-and-you'll-miss-it releases in France and Greece. If you were inside Iran, the government didn't want you knowing about the guy; if you were outside, well, you'd probably never heard of him anyway.
About Elly,* however, was making larger waves. Farhadi's latest movie starred well-known beauty Golshifteh Farahani, among other highly reputed Iranian actors, and came wreathed in Audience and Director awards from Iran's own Fajr Film Festival. That wasn't enough to attract the interest of the international film scene, though. People in Paris and LA don't pay attention to Fajr Film Festival. It wasn't until the movie debuted to absolute raves at Berlin, where it picked up the prestigious Silver Bear, that the international community took notice. After winning Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca and racking up awards at Viennale, Chicago and elsewhere, Regent Entertainment Group acquired it for a future platform release stateside. Things were in motion for US audiences to finally get a glimpse of what the raves were all about. Terrific.
That was in 2009. In early 2011, Regent got slapped with a $90 million lawsuit which effectively threw 100 of their titles, both library and unreleased acquisitions, into limbo. The lawsuit, placed by Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, was the first step in what ultimately ended in Regent, as it was set up at the time, going out of business. About Elly continued to gather dust, sitting on a shelf on Wilshire and seen by no one.
Meanwhile, Asghar Farhadi kept working. In 2011, his A Separation** opened to worldwide acclaim, with an absurd 113 nominations and wins at various festivals, becoming the first Iranian film to win an Oscar (Best Foreign Film, also nominated for Original Screenplay) and placing director Farhadi and Iranian film in general on the map in a way it had never been before.
Everyone (except the Iranian government, which forbade Farhadi to celebrate his Oscar win upon returning to his native country) loved A Separation, which managed the unique feat of being a domestic drama that felt like a thriller. Something about the way he carefully disseminated information to the viewer throughout the movie kept viewers on the edge of their seats, and it all felt so relatable and real, thanks in large part to killer performances and a lack of music or other sentiment-inducing tropes.
Two years later he would direct The Past,*** starring actor Berenice Bejo (fresh from The Artist) in a searing lead role. She won Best Actress at Cannes, arguably a bigger deal internationally than the Oscars. Both films are about divorces, but they approach that thorny topic from very different angles. This one was shot in France and filmed in the French language, doubtless easier for Farhadi than wrangling with an uncooperative, anti-art bureaucracy back home. The Past also received rapturous praise, though it lacked the surprise factor of A Separation's splash-landing.
All this was fine, but it made everyone ask, what about that other movie he made back in 2009? Starring who? Leo DiCaprio's character's girlfriend in Body of Lies?**** What was it even called? And why, in this day and age, was a movie that's less than five years old and directed by the most famous Iranian director in the world completely unavailable? All there was to read about it were the raves from Berlin and Tribeca, and pictures of Farhadi holding the Silver Bear. Everybody was curious about About Elly, but there was no way to see it.
Which brings us to 2014. Cinema Guild made headlines when it acquired About Elly for North American distribution in November of that year, wresting it back to life from a six-year coma. A premiere was scheduled at the New York Film Forum for April of 2015, followed by a limited release in May. Finally, finally, US audiences would get a third Asghar Farhadi film to salivate over. They were getting his work out of order, but hey, who cares. The reviews promised sliced bread, and the director's recent track record seemed to indicate the same.
Sooooo. How's About Elly?
Let me just say two things. I'll try to be brief. One is that About Elly really is sliced bread. I sat in the front row, gobsmacked and unwilling to move as the end credits rolled. I see a lot of great films, but only a select few– and this is no criticism of the many others– only a select few pictures pierce through all the analysis of form and content and strike me on a deeper level, the level of real and felt emotions, strong emotions that burn and heal and leave me a more thoughtful person. Says Farhadi, "Classical tragedy was the war between good and evil. We wanted evil to be defeated and good to be victorious. But the battle in modern tragedy is between good and good. And no matter which side wins, we'll still be heartbroken."
About Elly is not about politics, or plots, or monsters, or explosions, or even resolutions, but something much more complex: people. Somehow it's all the more relatable for taking place in a very different country than our own. What you end up focusing on are the similarities– the universal human tendencies towards laughter, sadness, love, belonging… it's all thrown into high relief, and the everyday realism allows points to be made (I'm thinking of some indictments towards patriarchal attitudes in Iranian society) with more effectiveness.
The second thing is that the less you know about the film's story going in, the more effective it will be. If you must know an inkling of the setup, it starts off being about a group of college friends taking a short vacation at a villa, and then expands its emotional scope when one of the friends mysteriously disappears. It's tense. Like A Separation and The Past, it's a drama but it's structured like a thriller. This gives you the relatable relevance of drama alongside the tight, edge-of-your-seat fascination of a thriller framework– amazingly, without apparent compromise to either approach. Farhadi is one of the best artists working today. It feels good to be in the capable hands of a master.
About Elly plays at The Grand Illusion– and nowhere else in Seattle– only until June 4th. Go now. You won't regret it.
I'm compelled to share with you an excerpt of Farhadi's 2012 Oscar acceptance speech, which expresses a thought of mine better than I ever could:
"At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award, or a film, or a filmmaker, but, because at a time of talk of war, intimidation, and aggressions exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture; a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country; the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment."
****Actress Golshifteh Farahani's supporting role in Body of Lies is more significant than most people realize, in that it was the first appearance of an Iranian actor in a Hollywood production since the 1979 revolution. Due to a couple of scenes where Farahani doesn't wear a hijab, Iran confiscated her passport and ultimately banned her from acting and returning to her country. She now resides in Paris.
*Trailer for About Elly. If you must– reviews.
**Trailer for A Separation.
***Trailer for Le Passe (The Past).