An old proverb, repeatedly refrained in About Elly, warns that ‘a bitter ending is better than an endless bitterness’. But is it? That’s one of the questions this lovely, wise and moving film engages us with and explores. In About Elly, beautiful people are glamorously filmed living through recognizable circumstances in real settings. The drama involves slight events that get out of control and become forcefully dramatic: little lies that unravel and become big dilemmas; people who try to do good but end up doing harm because they insist on getting their own way. Life is hard and Farhardi’s films show us this movingly, beautifully. The way Farhardi so easily convey the beauty in people, even when they don’t act on the purest of motives, is a ravishment; it’s a kind of aesthetic ennoblement of ordinary people that is a delight to the eye and a balm to the soul. With Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti, Merila Zare’i.
One event, the robbery of a jewelry shop, bookends the beginning and end of the film; but by the time we are shown it the second time, our views and our sympathies have been altered. Hussain (Hossain Emadeddin) is a war vet, currently on cortisone as a result of being wounded during his service, and his body has ballooned and is unrecognizable even to himself. Once in charge of electronic communications in the army, he now delivers pizzas for a living; even his old army mates don’t want to be seen with him, as if he’s contagious.
Hussein’s deliveries take him all over the city, and all over the city we see an enormous economic divide and institutionalized social distinctions. We witness assorted injustices, many mere exercises in power but no less potent for being petty. The camera follows Hussein on his scooter through Tehran leaving enough room in the frame so that we see people going about their daily lives in those bustling, dirty streets. Thus the film places Hussein in his particular context and thus a whole way of life is revealed, sometimes by indirection, some aspects only hinted at, others allegorised: Hussein remembers when women didn’t have to wear a veil; his fiancé is concerned that her having removed hers might have offended him; drinking and dancing aren’t allowed yet some of them can do it with impunity; the police likes to harangue the liberal middle-class; a lowly soldier can’t afford to alienate his superior; dust and dirt are everywhere except in the jewelry shop and the rich boy’s flat. It’s a divided, repressed country with an enormous gap between rich and poor that is shown to be amongst the worst of injustices: all gold is metaphorically shrouded crimson in this film.
By the end, Hussein’s story, which we at first thought to be a crime drama about a thug, is shown to be a tragedy about a person who does his duty, one so humane he goes to great lengths to ensure a young soldier may eat without reprisals. Jafar Panahi’s achievement in showing us the humanity of these people in that culture is a triumph of art, emotional tact and political courage. American directors should see Crimson Gold. There are many forms of censorship; Iranian artists suffer under an authoritarian regime; American ones from an enslavement to Mammon that is just as effective a censor. It does anyone good to see what a filmmaker with insight, art and humanity is able to convey even with few means and in a society with fewer freedoms.