Facing Conflict Within and Beyond - "Under the Skin of the City" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

At the beginning of "Under the Skin of the City," Tuba (Golab Adineh), a middle-aged woman who works in a textile mill in Tehran, sits down in front of a documentary film crew to answer some formulaic questions about the pending parliamentary elections. Although she is, as we will soon discover, the tough and articulate matriarch of a striving working-class family, Tuba finds herself flustered and speechless, stumbling over the rehearsed political boilerplate she is expected to deliver. At the movie's end, when the same crew has returned to record her in the act of voting, she has found her voice, and delivers a harangue about the miseries her family has recently suffered -- travails that make up the plot of this new film by Rakhshan Bani Etemad, which opens in New York today.

This time, however, the crew encounters technical difficulties, and her impassioned speech goes unrecorded. "I wish somebody would film what's going on right in here," she cries, jabbing at her chest. "Who do you show these films to anyway?"

That question evokes the title of a documentary Ms. Bani Etemad made in 1992, and up to now the answer has not included American audiences. "Under the Skin of the City" is one of nine features she has made since 1988, but it is the first to be released in this country. And while the film's concern with the lives of women in urban Iran and its tone of frank social commentary link it to other recent Iranian movies (like Jafar Panahi's "Circle" and Abbas Kiarostami's "Ten"), it has a direct, unabashedly melodramatic tone reminiscent of Italian neo-realism or post-World War II American stage drama. Witnessing an ordinary family fighting for dignity, opportunity and the possibility of happiness, and watching its seemingly inevitable defeat, I was reminded of nothing so much as "A Raisin in the Sun."

Ms. Bani Etemad shoots the courtyards and alleyways of Tehran, as well as its fashionable shopping and office districts, with efficient realism, but the crises that wrack Tuba's family could be happening anywhere. Her husband, Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi), who is partially disabled, mostly sits around complaining and feeling sorry for himself, even as he plots with their older son, Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan), to sell the house that is the bedrock of the family's stability.

Abbas, who runs errands for a local garment wholesaler, entertains dreams of upward mobility. He is trying to obtain a visa that will allow him to work in Japan, where he hopes to earn enough money to marry an office worker he has fallen for. Abbas's younger brother, Ali (Ebrahim Sheibani), is a student activist in occasional trouble with the police and rival political factions.

They have two sisters, Mahboubeh (Baran Kosari, the director's daughter) and Hamideh (Homeira Riazi), whose lives are shadowed by domestic violence. Mahboubeh's best friend, who lives in an adjacent house, is regularly beaten by her brother, and Hamideh is in frequent flight from her brutal husband. Tuba, worn out by factory work, tries to keep the family on an even keel, while Abbas struggles to lift them out of their shabby circumstances, and their good intentions place them frequently at cross-purposes. While the two of them are at the center of the film's swirling, sometimes confusing drama, the real protagonist is the family itself -- a fragile, complex organism undermined by internal conflict and menaced by the cruelty and indifference of the society around them.

There is a great deal of palpable political sentiment in this film: a quiet disgust at the way Tuba and her co-workers are exploited; a simmering contempt at the deeply ingrained habits of male domination; and a weary pessimism about the fantasy of cosmopolitan affluence that Abbas finds so compelling. But Ms. Bani-Etemad is neither hopeless nor didactic, and somehow the calamities that befall Tuba and her children take on the purgative and redeeming force of tragedy. The distraught mother facing the camera at the end is a figure not of pity, but of defiance.

Originally Published March 14, 2003

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