A startling new film from Iran, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's Under the Skin of the City, gives American viewers a rare and vivid glimpse of day-to-day life in contemporary Tehran -- altering some of the politically based preconceptions we may have about the place and opening our eyes to a society that has, for us, been shrouded in myths and misinformation since the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like the recent Chinese film Beijing Bicycle, this deceptively simple story of family friction and personal striving draws back the curtain on a world we could scarcely have imagined without it. At the same time, it reveals the common fate of the urban poor everywhere.
Writer/director Bani-Etemad is Iran's foremost woman filmmaker and one of its most vocal dissidents, challenging roles in a country where women are not even permitted to sing in public (except to all-female audiences) and where, despite some recent easing of restrictions, government censors examine every foot of film shot within Iranian borders. Happily, Bani-Etemad's status in the artistic community is such that she successfully resisted official demands to cut or change some scenes in City. The completed work, she says, is precisely as she intended it.
What we have here is a busy portrait of an embattled working-class family caught up in the post-war chaos of 1998 but perched on the eve of parliamentary elections that give most Iranians a bit of hard-won hope for reform. In the last two decades, Bani-Etemad has made nine documentaries as well as eight previous fiction films (none exported to the United States), so her knowing views of teeming, alien Tehran -- from the crowded shantytown where her fictional family lives to the shabby glamour of the high-priced shopping districts -- reveal not only the ironic sensibility of a poet but the cold eye of a TV cameraman. Under the skin, indeed. The huge, troubled city this director knows so well -- and we Westerners know not at all -- inevitably becomes her most compelling and colorful character.
Under the Skin of the City
That's not to say she shortchanges her memorable human beings. The family's traditionalist, gray-haired matriarch, Tuba (Golab Adineh), spends her days bent over a loom in a hellish textile mill that could use a good going-over by Norma Rae. Then the weary woman staggers home, her alarming cough growing ever worse, to hand-scrub the laundry, cook dinner and see to the whims of her partially disabled and completely unconcerned husband (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi). In her spare time, Tuba's also learning to read -- a luxury unavailable in her youth. Meanwhile, her two daughters (one a teenager) are clearly caught between the old ways and the new. Her younger son is vaguely political and on the verge of dropping out of school. The older one, Abbas (Mohammed Reza Foroutan), runs shady errands for shady characters in the hope of buying a visa for Japan, going abroad and making enough money to resurrect his struggling family and perhaps woo a pretty girl he's spotted in a downtown office.
As you might expect from an educated woman filmmaker working in a society that has some serious problems with social justice in general and women's rights in particular, Bani-Etemad gives us razor-sharp insights into everything from urban poverty and wife-beating to the chicaneries of the black market and the centuries-old presumptions of patriarchs who decline to support their families but insist on making all the decisions. But she's much more dramatist than ideologue, and she's not about to relegate her native land to, say, some fanciful Axis of Evil. As a matter of fact, it dawns on us in the course of these 93 minutes that Under the Skin of the City could, with a couple of cultural alterations and some major changes of costume, just as easily be set in Detroit or Denver, so universal are the sins and the strivings we see here. We may not speak Farsi, but our children, too, yearn to improve things for beleaguered parents. Our heroin merchants, too, sometimes smuggle their wares in trucks over treacherous mountain passes.
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Tuba's desperate exertions -- "This is life, you can't call it quits," she insists -- are heartbreakingly real, and by the end, they focus on an effort to save her very home. Meanwhile, we sense that her son Abbas's ambitions, idealistic but by no means oversized, may lead him to the kind of grief we see every day on the mean streets of urban America. In other words, while this impassioned and beautifully observed film gives us all we could want of the chaos and the color of Iran, it demonstrates -- without even trying -- what ails most of the world, even those of us living in post- industrial societies unburdened by fundamentalist censorship. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's cry of the heart rings true in Tehran, but you can hear it everywhere.