24 Lies a Second: 22.10.12

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Strangers on a Shore

I like to think that I know about cinema, but it sometimes seems to me that for me to claim knowledge of films puts me in the same position as someone claiming to know about animals whose experience is almost wholly limited to cats and dogs and rabbits – we live in a world of bandicoots and martens and tuataras and dolphins and caecilians, after all, and the same world contains films from India and Denmark and Venezuela, none of which I've ever properly sat down to watch. Only the tiniest handful ever make it onto a UK cinema screen, and these are hardly a representative sample, being usually especially acclaimed and significant pieces of work.

Such seems to be the case with Asghar Farhadi's About Elly..., an Iranian film currently enjoying a sporadic release around the arthouses of the UK. This is a movie from 2009 which has earned a theatrical outing, one suspects, following the plaudits won by his more recent film A Separation.

I have to put my hand up and say I know virtually nothing substantial about Iranian cinema – they don't make monster movies or employ Mr Statham over there, so in a very real sense they're completely off my usual radar. I have no idea, therefore, how representative this film is of the country's output: but regardless of that, this is still an arrestingly accomplished and interesting movie.

Set in the present day, it concerns a group of old university friends who are now in their thirties and forties; some of them have young children. They are setting out for a weekend of leisure in a beachfront house by the sea. But with them is a newcomer, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), the schoolteacher of one of the kids – she is there because one of the men in the group, Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) is looking for a bride; this is a not-very-subtle attempt at matchmaking by the others.

Things don't go quite to plan but everyone ends up in a fairly nice house on the beach, where they plan to stay for three days – even though Elly is insistent she has to leave early, for reasons she won't disclose. Everyone relaxes; they play charades and volleyball, old jokes are rehashed, everyone seems to be having a good time and Elly and Ahmad seem to be growing closer.

But then, as Elly is gently pressing to be allowed to leave, something happens that threatens to turn the whole expedition into a devastating tragedy, the aftermath of which shocks the group to its core. As previously invisible tensions creep out into the light and personalities within the group clash in a manner most ugly, everyone present is forced to ask how much they really know about Elly...?

This may just be patronising, but I turned up to an Iranian film expecting something rather handcranked and homespun – which this to some extent is, mostly shot in one location, with a fairly limited cast, no obviously major expenditure in terms of big set-piece sequences and hardly any music. But then again this could all just be a deliberate choice on the part of Farhadi – he doesn't appear to be one of those World Cinema directors who's secretly nursing a hankering to work for Marvel or Eon (I direct you to the career of Lee Tamahori, who in a few years went from helming the superb Maori social drama Once Were Warriors to knocking out bonkers Bond flick Die Another Day).

About Elly... is not big or very visually complex, but Farhadi's direction is a model of subtle efficiency, completely drawing you into the story and creating convincing atmospheres throughout. The script (Farhadi again, in association with Azad Jafarian) is also an understatedly clever thing: the early scenes are packed with throwaway details, lines, and jokes which hardly register, but which come back to haunt and cause real trouble for the characters as the plot unwinds. And in the process it all seems impressively naturalistic – one might even think this film was part-improvised; I've no idea whether it was or not – while the key sequence manages to be incredibly gripping, despite coming out of almost nowhere.

At first sight this seems to be a very straightforward drama about a group of friends, disconcertingly Western in outlook – it almost seems as if this film could be remade in English and set in the UK or USA with very little loss of sense or texture. But as it progresses, the tone of scenes slowly changes. Where previously the characters were very Western in outlook, relaxed, egalitarian and thoughtful, as they find themselves in increasingly stressful situations older patterns of behaviour reappear. The men become more chauvinistic and dominating, the women cowed and nervous. The demands of traditional society force the characters into increasingly morally dubious choices, effectively making them the unwilling participants in a conspiracy to deceive.

The movie offers no easy conclusions about these things, and indeed the conclusion of the film itself is very understated and quiet, given some of the foregoing events. But the main question which has been hanging over the story is resolved, and the characters are left to deal with the consequences of their actions; this will clearly not be easy.

This very thoughtful and rather serious film is superbly directed and extremely well played by the ensemble cast: it's yet another example of a film which many more people would enjoy than will probably consider going to see it. The smaller screen at the Oxford Phoenix was packed out for its solitary showing there (cue much jigging about early on as everybody tried to get their heads in a position where they could read the subtitles over the shoulder of the person in front) – and deservedly so, for this is as good a drama as anything I've seen this year. Be brave this year: stroke more bandicoots.

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