REVIEW: UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY
All in a day's work
More a dramatic blockbuster than a quaint art film, "Under the Skin of the City" is a dynamic portrait of contemporary working-class life that shows much of what's wrong in Iran but also much that's right.
By DAVID LIPFERT
This may be the first Iranian blockbuster to be released in the U.S. It's
not an art film, so you won't see any smiling kids in the countryside.
There's not much time for philosophy, either. These are real people with
real problems, none of which will simply go away by wishing.
Maybe that's why Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's "Under the Skin of the City" kept
drawing huge crowds long after its theatrical release in Iran. I remember
seeing people streaming in and out of Tehran's most prominent if not
nicest downtown cinema about this time last year to see it.
|UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY|
|Original title: Zir-e poost-e shahr.|
Directed by: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad.
Written by: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Farid Mestafavi
Cast: Golab Adineh, Mohammad Reza Foroutan, Baran Kowsari, Ebraheem
Sheibani, Mohsen Ghazi Moradi, Ali Ossivand, Mehrdad Falahatgar, Mahraveh Sharifi-Nia.
Cinematography: Hossein Jafarian.
In Persian with English subtitles.
Anyone catching it here will get a remarkably accurate portrait of life in
the big T. There are more than enough bribes, drug smuggling, contraband
products and just plain dishonesty to go around. But there are sweeter
times, too. For all their troubles, the working-class family headed by
mother Tuba (Golab Adineh) and father Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi)
haven't lost the love and affection of their children, in various states
of engagement with the country's dynamic social fabric. And they can
still enjoy a night on the town at an upscale pizzeria, courtesy of Abbas.
Elder son Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan) is overeducated for his spot as
personal assistant to his boss Nasser in a thriving shop in the clothing
bazaar. That doesn't stop him from dreaming. Unfortunately, to get a
decent paying job most young people in Iran dream of getting out in Abbas's
case to Japan. For that he needs a visa agency, and for that he needs
Behind Tuba's back, Abbas has conspired with his father to sell the
family's humble house in a poorer section of southern Tehran. (The train
whistles and shots of the tracks nicely localize their neighborhood.) To
Tuba's relief, they haven't had to move for a while as owners.
Pre-asthmatic from her job at a textile plant, she can use a break. She's
the primary breadwinner, since Mahmoud is disabled from an unspecified
Tuba also has to keep the house in order, cook and do laundry without much
help from high-schooler daughter Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), who prefers
hanging out with her rebellious (read: wears makeup and listens to foreign
pop music) classmate and neighbor Masoumeh (Mahraveh Sharifi-Nia). To the
horror of the family, college-age son Ali (promising Ebraheem Sheibani) is
immersed in leftist politics, which lands him in jail every now and then.
There's also a married daughter taking temporary refuge with them until
she can stand to return to her abusive husband.
The year is 1997 and politics are in the air. Even Tuba finds herself
being interviewed along with her co-workers for television about the
upcoming elections, which would bring the current reformist president to
power. Tuba doesn't see the point of getting too excited, and time has
proved her right.
At home Tuba suspects something's up, but she can't stop it. With most of
the money from the house sale in hand, Abbas forks it over to a visa
agency so he can begin his Japanese work adventure. It's a bad move,
because when he reappears, the office has vanished along with his money.
Now desperate, he feels compelled to take up a lucrative offer from
Marandi, only this involves ferrying drug-laden wedding gowns to the
Turkish border. Abbas's first mission ends in failure thanks to brother
Ali's protective sabotage. With his life in free fall, he instantly turns
into the next fugitive from mafia-style justice.
The plotline has enough drama for a clutch of neo-realist films. But the
tragedy of Abbas's well-intentioned but disastrous choices takes second
place to the resilient family structure that is the real subject here. In
the hands of another director, the family portrayed in this film would
have been from the core religious-political enthusiast supporters of the
current regime in Iran. Father Mahmoud would have been a disabled veteran
of the Iran-Iraq war. Instead of religion and the "Sacred Defense" war,
Bani-Etemad puts non-ideological traditional values conditioned by
economic necessities at the fore. (One of the few nationalistic
references is the patriotic song heard during the credits, but its
presence is ironic since the characters seem oblivious to this line of
| ||The plotline has enough drama for a clutch of neo-realist films. But the tragedy of Abbas's well-intentioned but disastrous choices takes second place to the resilient family structure that is the real subject here.|
There's a wealth of realistic detail and references to social-political
problems that at times threatens to overwhelm. That's when it's time for
the Abbas character to break through with a new plot direction. Around
these moments Bani-Etemad strategically inserts fancy visual action
passages to segment the domestic narrative anchored by Tuba.
See this film for the realistic story and portrait of a well-adjusted
family (unlike their neighbors). See it also for the accurate portrait of
life in late-winter Tehran with the snow-covered Alborz Mountains just to
The acting has less to recommend it. Mohammad Reza Foroutan is Iran's
most overexposed screen star with little in the way of acting skills to
justify his ubiquity. (His performance in a comparable role in Ahmad Reza
Darvish's "Born Under Libra" is even more wanting.) By
contrast, the other lead, Golab Adineh, brings a warmth and humanity to her
character of the mother that Bani-Etemad keeps in check to maintain focus
on family relationships and the ramifications of Abbas's moves.
|MARCH 18, 2003|
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