I heard a lot about an Iranian film, About Elly, and I decided to watch it. This is the general plot as far as I could make it. The film is about three married couples who travel to northern Iran with their children. A young man named Ahmad and a young woman, called Elly, accompany the group on this trip. Ahmad is visiting Iran for a short time, and Elly works in a day care where Sepideh’s daughter attends. Sepideh has invited both Elly and Ahmad so that they meet and hopefully get married.
Elly wants to go back home after a day as planned, but Sepideh prevents her from leaving. Shortly after, Elly disappears. No one knows what happened to Elly, and it turns out that no one knows anything about her, not even her actual name (Elly is a nick name). Sepideh lets on bits and pieces of information that she has been hiding from everyone. For example, Sepideh knew that Elly was engaged and yet invited her to accompany them on this trip to meet a prospective husband. She claims that she insisted that Elly should come on this trip even though Elly wasn’t keen because she wanted to end it with her bothersome fiancé first.
A young man, claiming to be Elly’s brother, appears on the scene. Sepideh suspects that the man is in fact Elly’s fiancé who accidentally finds out something about the arrangement on the trip. The group decides to tell the man that no one knew the truth about Elly’s engagement. Sepideh insists that she cannot keep the truth from the man as this would ruin Elly’s reputation. At the end, she goes on with the group’s decision to keep her prior knowledge of Elly’s engagement from the man.
In the meantime, the police find the body of a drowned woman. The fiancé confirms the identity of the young woman, refuses to call Elly’s family, takes away Elly’s bag and phone, and leaves.
The effect of a young girl’s disappearance on others’ lives is a highly explored subject in both film and literature. Two distinct examples that come to my mind are stories by two famous Canadian writers. In “Death by Landscape”, Atwood uses the disappearance of a young girl in a camping trip to explore landscape and its place in Canadian psyche and identity. The girl’s body is never found; she vanishes into the landscape. The young girl’s unresolved fate changes the lives of people who came in contact with her. Atwood provides no distinct resolution but many clues and motives for characters’ behaviours as well as the Canadian landscape with its ever present menace.
In “Open Secrets”, Alice Munro uses the disappearance of a young girl in a camping trip to explore hidden secrets in two married couples’ lives. After the young girl disappears, a couple visits an old lawyer and his young wife to seek the lawyer’s advice. They want to know what to do with the information they have about the events of the day of the disappearance of the girl. The woman, married to a semi-retarded man, reveals information that would exclude her husband as a suspect in the disappearance.
The lawyer advises them to talk to the police, but they do not. There are clues in the story to suggest the woman may be withholding information, and why she may be doing that. The old lawyer’s wife keeps her perceived knowledge of the identity of the girl’s killer to herself. Otherwise, she has to reveal her own humiliating secret about her husband’s sexual molestation of her.
The girl’s body is never found just as the secrets in married couples’ lives. Munro provides no distinct resolution, but strong clues as well as motives for the characters’ behaviours. We may wish they behaved differently, but we understand why they behave the way they do.
I hope it is clear why I brought these two examples while examining “About Elly”. The main line of plot in all three is very similar: the disappearance of a young girl reveals information about those around her. The huge difference is that in “About Elly”, the only thing revealed is a huge confusion on the film’s part.
No meaningful motivation or reason is provided for the main character’s behaviour. Sepideh knows that Elly is engaged, and that she does not want to meet Ahmad before she breaks off her engagement. Yet, she relentlessly pursued Elly to meet Ahmad while keeping Elly’s engagement from Ahmad. Why is Sepideh so keen on Elly and Ahmad getting together? OK, Ahmad, her friend, asked her to find him a wife. Is there a shortage of single girls who want to marry someone abroad and leave Iran? Not that I know of. So, why does she have to pursue this particular engaged, granted unhappily, girl? And this is all more confusing as Sepideh does not even know Elly’s full name!
None of these makes any sense. First she hides pieces of information such as Elly’s engagement from Ahmad, the prospective suitor, and her own husband, and everyone else. Then suddenly she cannot hide one single fact (that she knew Elly was engaged) from a man she has just met (the alleged fiancé). Why does Sepideh, who comfortably keeps everything from everyone, has so much difficulty keeping something from Elly’s fiancé? Her reasoning is as meaningless as her overall behaviour: to save Elly’s face in the eyes of her fiance.
The viewer does not know anything about Sepideh except that she is obsessed with matching Elly and Ahmad, and she keeps lying to everyone. Where does that leave the viewer? What conclusion can be drawn, if any? It has been suggested that the films reveals moral conflicts in the Iranian middle class, that we (Iranians) lie all the time, … I think the film fails to raise any valid point or reasonable conclusion.
Knowing that people lie or keep things from one another is not a huge revelation unless a specific person, say one who is known never to lie, under specific circumstances lies. Then we are taken into a different realm as in Miller’s “The Crucible”. In “About Elly” we are faced with a woman who keeps lying for no apparent reason except when her lie may save herself and those around her from some perceived problem. Then she insists that she has to tell the truth, but she never does.
Then there are so many details that do not make sense. How could the police let the alleged fiancé to identify Elly? Should they not call Elly’s family just to check whether this man is Elly’s fiancé? By then, everyone seems to have Elly’s home phone number; so why let a perfect stranger, as far as the police are concerned, identify another perfect stranger? Why is everyone so sure that this man, first claiming to be Elly’s brother, is her fiancé? Why is he so keen to phone someone in Tehran first but then he does not bother to call Elly’s family? Why is he so keen that the group does not bring in the police? Why does he take Elly’s bag if he is not going to her family?
These missing pieces do not transform the film into a mystery but a poorly constructed film. The screen, intentionally or inadvertently, builds upon a very familiar plot but fails in developing into a sound structure and in ending with possible intriguing outcomes. Something both Atwood and Munro have succeeded in brilliantly.