May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 13, 2009
How to discuss a film about which the less you know going in the better… which may or may not get enough U.S. distribution to matter… though if it does, you really should try to see… and getting you to do so may depend on someone like me convincing you to… without telling you too much… perhaps it’s nearly as difficult as getting certain kinds of conversations past the cinema censors in the Islamic Republic… so let’s do this indirectly.
Asghar Farhadi’s last film in the Chicago International Film Festival won the Golden Hugo in 2006, Fireworks Wednesday, a domestic drama set on the Persian New Year, punctuated by firecracker explosions, conveyed masterly in both image and sound. In About Elly, the background matrix of metaphor and cinematic possibilities is the sea. A group of university friends gather for a weekend in a beachfront cottage. Depending on one’s perspective, the choppy sea in this overcast season is bracing or malevolent – in any case, it is always there, relentless, ambiguous, unavoidable. Both About Elly and the previous film unfold a complex back-story, from multiple perspectives, in a non-linear way – foregrounding issues of narrative, truth, and their role in human relationships. Marriage is central to both films — as a relationship of highest hopes and deepest pain.
The thing is, I think director Farhadi truly believes in both: he conveys joy and conflict with the freshness, openness and depth of his characters, often in small, telling ways. He seems less interested in using human extremes as merely a foil for one another than in exploring a world where circumstances conspire bring out our best and worst — to get beyond the loss of innocence to being able to live meaningfully in the world that is.
I could tell I wasn’t the only one struggling to categorize this film, listening to people laugh nervously at moments they thought maybe made this a comedy of errors. At other moments, the film seemed Hitchcockian, when Fate seemed to be settling an inexplicable grudge by crafting circumstances into a hall of jagged, broken mirrors. I thought of Antonioni, a philosophical reference with rich and intriguing possibilities of contrast. The Italian director captured a world which the loss of transcendence had rendered numb; his characters could live in the moment, sure, but at cost of utter disconnection. Iranian cinema is a religious world – whatever else it may be or what outsiders may think of it, stories unfold beneath an intact “sacred canopy,” an overarching sense of moral transcendence that may actually turn out to be the primary requirement for unselfconscious community.
Indeed, one finds in Iranian cinema a certain social innocence in that has become hard to come by in the spiritually jaded West. Yet Iranians are far from philosophically naïve: if Antonioni is trying to conduct life in a suddenly airless environment, the Iranians are working out their existential agonies in a society where there is still enough air in the room to maintain a certain centeredness. Of course, existential agonies aren’t the only oppressions Iranians have to contend with, and feel a need to work out — even in the midst of them. The dicey politics of discussing politics in art under a totalitarian regime are one more avenue of interpretation for the film and the situations these characters struggle to make sense of. As always, simply raising questions about narrative-making carries its own subversive message in a regime where the Official Reality rules at gunpoint.
For Antonioni, making sense of life wasn’t even a concern anymore; in this film, finding meaning remains critical — even if there’s a certain self-consciousness about he unreliability of narrative and truth. I came away with the sense of the fragility of community, of relationships: how the abyss needn’t be existential to be bottomless, but that human nature has enough darkness to threaten our closeness with one another.
Favorite image: friends working together to push a car stuck in the sand on the beach. Most intriguing image: the opening credits featured the dark, inside perspective of a – what? a mailbox? a ballot box? The latter, of course, would be a most-pregnant image, given recent electoral controversies in Iran, which have been much on my mind.
By the close credits, I was ready to vote another Hugo for Farhadi (the film won Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca and Silver bear in Berlin) but it was only my first film of the 45th Chicago International Film Festival… which carries on for more than the next week… nice to start with such a winner… but I’ll try to get a sense of the competition and file some further reports here at Filmwell…