All in a day's work - "Under the Skin of the City" Review

By David Lipfert

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.

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.

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 Forutan) 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 money.

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 cause.

Tuba also has to keep the house in order, cook and do laundry without much help from high-schooler daughter Mahboubeh (Baran Kosari), who prefers hanging out with her rebellious (read: wears makeup and listens to foreign pop music) classmate and neighbor Massoumeh (Mahraveh Sharifinia). To the horror of the family, college-age son Ali (promising Ebrahim 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 rhetoric.)

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 north.

The acting has less to recommend it. Mohammad Reza Forutan 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.

Originally Published March 18, 2003

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