Directed by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring Taraneh Alidoosti, Golshifteh Farahani,
Ahmad Mehranfar, Mani Haghighi,
Marila Zare'i, Peyman Moadi,
Ra'na Azadivar, Shahab Hosseini
In a scene in the film, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is flying a kite. She has taken the string from little Morvarid who has asked her for help, and she rushes back and forth on the beach to get the wind to lift the kite. The camera focuses on her face; there is exhilaration and laughter as she gets the kite to lift. Suddenly, her face clouds over; she tells Morvarid to hold the kite, she has to go. That is the last we see of her alive.
This vanishing act sets up the rest of the film.
Who is Elly? What is her real name? Where is she from? In Asghar Farhadi’s “Dar bāre-ye Elly”, these are questions with which all the characters wrestle. Eight adults and three children, among them Elly, set out on a picnic on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Except for one of them, the others have only known Elly for a day.
The movie begins with the some of the men and women leaning out of their cars, screaming in joy and exultation, as they exit a tunnel on the way to the sea. There are three married couples amongst the adults. Of the remaining two adults, Elly is a Sepideh’s (Golshifteh Farahani) friend; she is Sepideh’s daughter’s teacher, and has been invited by Sepideh at the last moment. The other, Ahmad (Shahab Hossaini), is a friend who has come from Germany after his divorce.
The villa they wish to stay in is not free, and so, Sepideh persuades the caretakers to rent them a house. She says they have two newlyweds with them (Elly and Ahmad) and it would be nice if they could get a place to stay. The caretakers rent out an old house right on the shore. The next day, Elly would like to return to Tehran but Sepideh tells her she has to stay with them till they leave. Sepideh and Shorheh (Merila Zare’i) leave to go to the market leaving Elly and Nāzy (Ra’na Azadivar) and the men who are playing volleyball, with the children. The little boy, Arash, is playing in the sea while Elly and the two young girls are flying kites on the beach.
Suddenly, the two girls come running to tell the men that Arash is in the sea. As they and some of the other men on the beach pull Arash from the sea, Nāzy suddenly realises that Elly is missing.
Where is she?
Farhadi’s films dwell on small impulsive decisions that affect and change the life of individuals. Like Lorentz’s butterfly effect, these little decisions cause much larger repercussions forcing the protagonists in his films to wrestle with problems that can overwhelm them.
The emotions of each of the main characters in the film before and after Elly’s disappearance is subtly exposed. The tension between Sepideh and Amir (Mani Haghighi), for instance. They are seemingly an ill-matched couple. Amir cares for his wife but is exasperated by her impulsiveness.
Ahmad is caught in the tension between them – Sepideh wanted Elly to meet Ahmad, but Amir takes his frustrations out on him.
Shohreh (Marila Zarei) is worried about her son who could have drowned, and tense about whether her ululations to convince the old caretaker that Elly and Ahmad were newlyweds had offended Elly, pushing her to commit suicide. Peyman(Peymān Moaadi), Arash’s father, seems to feel responsible for Elly’s death because his son was rescued from the sea. Did Elly go in to save him or was she capable of taking her own life on a whim?
Nāzy and Manuchehr (Ahmad Mehranfar) don’t have children, but feel responsible because Nāzy was supposed to look after the children; only, she left Elly in charge while she went to tidy up. Each character questions their own culpability in Elly’s disappearance/death, sometimes just by a gesture.
Then, there’s the all-important problem of informing Elly’s mother. What do they tell her? Finally, when Manuchehr calls Elly’s home, her mother does not even acknowledge that Elly is away.
Like the characters, we, the audience, never really get to know Elly well either. We see different facets of her character – taking care of a child at times; apprehensive sometimes. Elly is animated while playing charades but is bothered by the none-too-subtle matchmaking attempts by the others. She seems at ease with Sepideh and her friends, but whenever she’s alone, she is worried and distracted. She has a phone conversation with her mother where she indicates that she doesn’t want anybody to know she has gone away with her colleagues.
She never has a personal conversation with anybody except with Ahmad, to whom she once asks why he broke up with his wife. Ahmad replies that his wife had said: “A bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness.” The response makes Elly pensive. But she’s a will-o’-the-wisp for all that, and we never really know who she is, or what she’s like.
Elly is in the film for less than half its running time, and yet, her presence permeates the entire film. Her absence rips apart the other characters’ lives. Each character analyses every moment of the picnic, every spoken word and gesture, each in their own way. The one affected most is Sepideh.
She is the one who invites Elly: she is the one who hides Elly’s bag and cell phone so she will not leave; she is the one who knows for sure that Elly is dead, lost in the sea… yet, for a moment, even she hopes against hope that Elly has left for Tehran on her own. As her worst fears are realized, she sits alone at a table weeping.
Just like Elly, the sea is a constant presence – even when the characters drive away from the beach. It is always there, shifting, moving, ceaseless, endless, keeping its secrets. Welcoming at the beginning of the film, the sea’s character changes until towards the end it is a menacing, all- pervasive presence, causing Shohreh to say "The sound of it is driving me crazy.”
The sea provides the only music in the film, other than a few songs that play on the car’s radio. As in Farhadi’s later film “Jodaí-e Nadér az Simín” (A Separation), there is no background music in the film except at the very end. Even so, when the credits roll and a plaintive melody is played on a cello, you can hear the sea ebbing and swelling, and the waves beaching themselves on the shore.