An Iranian Jewel, “Under the Skin Of the City”
by Howard Feinstein
It’s taken a couple of years to get here, but “Under the Skin of the City” is an Iranian jewel and its director, Rakkhshan Bani-Etemad, is a revelation — for us, anyway. (She’s been making movies since 1977.) If this film is any indication, she is as tough as her principal protagonist, Tuba (Golab Adineh), who could be the Mother Courage of contemporary Iran.
Set in Tehran against the backdrop of the 1996 parliamentary elections, in which reformists were likely to gain power (they did), the finely-honed film is in many ways a thriller, a dynamic enterprise unlike the more languorous Iranian works we see here. The script is tight. Trains move so rapidly that they are nearly abstract images, ubiquitous cars and motorcycles whoosh down freeways, groups of women in billowing black chadors dash down sidewalks. Bani-Etemad does include some slower scenes, most of them of remarkable poignancy, like when loose wedding dresses float across a highway. The entire film, though, reflects her strong documentary background and social conscience. No soundstages here: Tehran, its side streets, shops, schools, and neighborhoods, plays a major role.
Tuba, though, is the focus. She is an asthmatic working-class mother who labors at a mechanized loom in a large factory to support her family. (The courtyard of her endangered home is the film’s physical center.) A complex if nearly illiterate woman, she embodies many of the contradictions in Iranian society. A pessimist by nature-she has been through some rough times; Tuba is always anxious about her children, whom she is constantly warning about life’s pitfalls. When things do ultimately go terribly awry, she rises to the occasion, supporting her brood with money she doesn’t have and an unflappable fearlessness.
She cannot depend on her husband, Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi), an unemployable man who was crippled in his youth at one of the then-mandatory pro-government demonstrations. The youngest two of their four children are high school students: Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani), a precocious boy who attends progressive political rallies of his own volition; and Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), a sweet, optimistic girl who is preoccupied with the plight of her fun-loving best friend, the girl next door who is constantly beaten up by her brother (an old-fashioned type who is also a drug pusher). The couple’s oldest, Hamideh, a timid, pregnant woman is also physically abused. She turns up regularly with her young son at the family home to escape her vicious husband.
The second child is the other most important character in the film and is a counterpoint to Tuba. Abbas (heartthrob Mohammad Reza Foroutan) is a handsome, high-energy fellow in his mid-twenties. Lacking the education that he wants for his younger siblings, he works as a messenger. He is, however, ambitious, and he sincerely wants to help the family financially. He hatches a scheme to buy a passport to the U.S. with money he will get when he and his father sell the house to an amoral developer (unbeknownst to Tuba, who has waited years to own her own place). Such is the power of the male in Iran. The sale backfires, triggering a nightmare scenario. In an effort to get the home back, Abbas smuggles heroin for a shady businessman.
Economics hover like a dark cloud over the film. Bani-Etemad links irresponsible development with the underground drug market. She shoots loads of sequences in workplaces. Tuba always sends the bruised Hamideh back to her spouse: She tells the battered woman she should make peace with her husband, but confides to the others that she cannot afford to feed her, her son, and her unborn child. The Law is also a constant shadow, and Tuba’s children are all tested by its long arm. We know about Abbas. Innocent Mahboubeh is arrested when the police clean up runaways from a public park. Ali is so deeply involved in political rebellion that he often runs home to escape the cops.
The director has said that she identifies strongly with Tuba. This is a bit ironic. TV interviews with Tuba, about politics, bracket the film. At the beginning, she stumbles, lacking a political consciousness. Let’s just say that she is very different at the end, eloquently linking the political situation with the personal, affective one. In one memorable line, something of an in-joke by Bani-Etemad, she talks back to the interviewer: “Who the hell do you show these films to anyway?” Let it be you.