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Tribeca 2009: "About Elly" (Farhadi, Iran)

An Iranian drama inspired by Antonioni’s “L’avventura”.
Above: let the games begin: the vacationers play charades before really having to start guessing.
Take a look around the festivals of 2008-2009 and the way mid-century classics are being remade and you might think a cine-generation has suddenly came of age. First Carlos Reygadas' Dreyer riff Silent Light, then Claire Denis' Ozu homage 35 rhums, and now Asghar Farhadi's Antonioni revision About Elly; one must wonder why these, and why now. Thankfully, the projects jump from their unparalleled antecedents in remarkably different ways. Denis survives best, using Late Spring as a springboard (sorry) for a dash of homage and a lot of inspiration. Reygadas doesn't survive as well, trying to at least match if not top Ordet's formal weight and spiritual roundhouse kick with all the grandeur cinemascope, wide-angle lens and Mennonites can muster. We give due praise to Denis for her invention, her freeform, jazz-like break-away, and we certainly give grudging respect to Reygadas for audacity (really a rare thing these days in the cinema), whatever one may think of his film. Steering the middle course, for better and for worse, is Farhadi's appropriation of L'Avventura's famous first act plot point: the disappearance of the person we thought would be our main character, our star, our center of attention.
About Elly does admittedly seem the least interesting of these three films, for where Denis flips Ozu's cubic formalism into sensual impressionism, and Reygadas tries to one-up (!) Dreyer's monumental building blocks of cinema, Fardhi, who wrote About Elly’s screenplay with Azad Jafarian, picks up Antonioni's ur-modernist film and takes it down a contemporary and conventional route of story (gasp!) and psychology (double gasp!). It would be fruitless, and perhaps unfair, to say About Elly understands little of what Antonioni was doing cinematically to his simple tale of the repercussions of what happens when someone (a rich someone) simply vanishes into thin air, so instead let us sigh a bit at the ease of adapting that scenario from High Formalist Playground into sub-Agatha Christie stuck-in-a-room-where-everyone-suspects-each-other and move on.
Because there is a lot to like in About Elly, especially before the disappearance. Instead of a romantic couple, a chic friend, and disposable others, in About Elly the whole weekend getaway is practically an excuse for a group of relatives and friends to set up the eponymous girl with a just-returned and just-divorced male friend. The freshness comes from Fardhi focusing on the repercussions prompted from and later suffered by the group rather than the individual couple. Fardhi taps into the Rivette-ian side of Antonioni's film, not interested in the silences and emptiness of human relationships and instead more curious about conspiracies and fictions. The first rears its head as we plunge medias-res into this beach-side vacation and we slowly learn that an effort is afoot within the party to set Elly up with the young man, against some grumblings in the group. But when Elly disappears, the main puppetmaster behind the romantic set-up crumples in horror and self-abasement: somehow her romantic scheming as resulted in...something; as in L'Avventura, the disappearance could also be a death, and no one is really sure what happened.
To fill up this gap, to explain away the unexplainable vanishing of Elly, we disappointingly get a couple reels of bickering and accusations between the vacationers, trying to track down the source of why the girl could have left (if she isn’t dead), who said what to whom, what it implied, what she could have taken the meaning to be. Soon, when the group finally has to notify a relative of the girl, the group falls back in a cascading series of preposterous lies to try to hide—from themselves and from the outsider—what really happened. Which no one is really sure of anyway. It's cute: lies to cover up the ghastliness of not knowing what's going on, or whether anything went on in the first place!
Asghar Farhadi, in the end, does justice to Antonioni by keeping his formal chops at the level of subtle, fluid use of the isolated and contained space of the single beach-house setting, and turning his attention to the fable at the center of the story, something Antonioni jettisoned much to the very vocal dismay of audience members in the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. If, on the whole, we are living in an era of cinema where the rule-changing audacity of a film like L'Avventura comes around far less frequently than back then, About Elly, like its fellow companions 35 rhums and Silent Light, show us that we are living in an era of cinema that is far from forgetting the monuments of the past, and can still find something alive and re-vitalizing in them to this very day.
Can’t wait to see it after reading this review.

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