Elly’s honor: a sort of review
‘She had the perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very, dangerous to live even one day.’ —Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
I had been commenting wryly to friends that whenever I visit Rio, something awful unfolds in the streets in Tehran. My arrival on 27 December coincided with the regime’s ‘Ashura attacks on protesters, an unheard of bloodshed on a day the regime itself calls sacred. Unlike the post-election summer, where I was steeped in daily accounts of the crisis (albeit from afar), the winter was a cold cut-off, a creeping anxiety about the possibility of civil war and a dampening guilt about the distance from family and friends who lived with that anxiety every day. Phone calls to Tehran did not assuage the anxiety or the guilt: loved ones either spoke in code (a first in all these years) or about applying for Canadian visas, anything to disguise or depart from a possible or pending disaster.
This is not a reflection on cinema girdled by actual events, but how sometimes the best cinema is like what Virginia Woolf said about fiction: affixed like a spider’s web (‘ever so lightly perhaps but still attached’) to the outlines of life. It’s about a particular texture or tone of a certain sector of Iranian society that images/words from the unrest in the streets don’t quite touch.
Woolf’s concern with women and space, and men’s obsession with women and their spaces, is a good transition to About Elly, Asghar Farhadi’s masterwork set on the northern Caspian coast. I had never heard of this director. I stumbled on the film on my birthday.
It was enough that an Iranian film was screening at a time of increasing bleakness (and even despair), where I least expected it. If I couldn’t be in Tehran, maybe I could watch Tehran, was the deliberately but earnestly drawn-out mental plan. And whaddyaknow, O Globo‘s bonequinho was applauding furiously out of his seat. (Brazil’s version of a thumbs up/thumbs down or 1 to 5 star film ranking is this stick figure graphic ‘doll’ that is either sitting, slightly rising out of his chair or exhibiting tremendous enthusiasm via a standing ovation. Whatever you think of dumbed down, one-minute film reviews, it’s still more plausible than stars.)
This is a ‘sort of’ film review of last year’s best film because there’s little one can meaningfully say about About Elly without plot spoilage. But the experience of watching this film in Brazil profoundly colored my experience of it. The Portuguese reworking of the title (Darbareye Elly درباره الی) is Procurando Elly, or Looking for Elly, a mistranslation of darbareye (looking for) to donbaal-e (about). This is no mere wordplay: it actually worked as a plot device by foreshadowing action, which in music and theater is the overture (thanks, high school drama teacher!). The Brazilian film import industry doesn’t shuffle its feet about changing a film’s name entirely, so whoever stamped this film with a new name either mistranslated darbare for donbaale, or favored a more straight-forward clue to the plot.
Another thing: the theater was pretty full. And it continued full in the next few days, when I saw the film again. Maybe the cinema-going Brazilian public wishes to see less news-filtered images of Iran. Maybe it was just the ridiculously scorching 42’C weather that brought the sidewalk indoors. Whatever reason kept the theaters packed (admittedly, on many people’s vacation days, but even during, say, the 14:00 afternoon lull), you got the visceral sense that people just got it.
And what they got were the near Victorian courtship and marriage rituals, the mock effeminacies men affect in their gestures and dancing, the unabashed joy and camaraderie of a seaside trip with friends (however little it lasts in the film), the unenvied position of a man with an assertive and charismatic wife, the raw emotional manipulation on the part of a suitor who can’t stand to be rejected, and the toppling effect of the emotional dominoes of attraction, flirtation, misunderstanding, loss, shock, horror (nearly all accompanied by ceremony).
The film brought the Tehrani middle class into relief in a most unexpected way: first in the light banter of suggestive conversations among a group of friends—certainly liberal in their outlook but unremarkable as icons in the ‘you might know people just like them’ way—then in their hyper vigilance in keeping social face when something goes terribly awry.
There is a private moment—in fact, a singularly cinematic moment because most people don’t talk to themselves aloud—when Golshifteh Farahani’s character articulates the film’s true, unspoken title: Ya’ni eenha darbareye Elly chee fekr mikonan? ‘What will they think about Elly?’ Namely: what will become of Elly’s honor? It is almost a surreal question in the context of the film, when the last preoccupation should be with Elly’s ‘good name.’
It seems sometimes like the middle class is beyond such embarrassing and outdated questions of virginal or sexual purity (there are bigger questions, right? questions of elections and nukes and civil wars and censorship?). But a week or so ago a Turkish girl was buried alive for violating these mores. Middle class or mass, as long as the notion of protected honor persists, the nature of womanhood in society will remain precarious, out to sea and alone.