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Working-class heroes in Tehran

'Under the Skin of the City' is a censure of Iranian society, but it's also great storytelling.

April 04, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Under the Skin of the City" is an apt title for a film that zeroes in on an urban working-class family and reveals both its daily struggle for survival and its dreams of a better life. The predicament is universal, but that the family happens to live in Tehran reveals challenges and hardships that are inescapably critical of Iranian society, especially concerning the plight of women.

But this splendid film is no mere polemic, for Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, often called the first lady of Iranian cinema, is above all an accomplished storyteller and dramatist who understands the evocative power of sound and image. It's no wonder that Iran's film critics voted her film the best of 2001; it also won the grand jury prize that year at the Moscow International Film Festival. And Bani-Etemad struck a chord with Iranian audiences, who made her film a box-office hit.

In an inspired touch, Bani-Etemad, best known for "Narges" (1992) and "The Blue-Veiled" (1994), both daring in their defense of women, sets her story against the parliamentary elections of 1998, which carried hope of reform. A TV newscaster singles out Tuba Rahmat-Abdi (Golab Adineh), a worn, middle-aged factory worker, to ask her about the elections but cuts her off as soon as she says shyly that she hopes elected officials will believe in God and be concerned with the issues of housing and welfare. At the end of the film, when TV newscasters catch up with Tuba again, she has become blunt and outspoken.

Tuba is developing a job-related lung disease but soldiers on. Her decidedly older husband, Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi), is lame and stays at home and is out of touch with the times. The other mainstay of the family is her eldest son, Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), an ambitious, hard-working gofer for a garment manufacturer. Abbas is the family dreamer: He wants his younger brother, Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani), a high school student and casual dissident, and middle-school-age sister, Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), to have the college education he could not afford. His immediate goal is to gather enough money to obtain a foreign work visa and head for Japan to make more money than he could have ever hoped to make at home. Abbas also longs to be able to court a beautiful clerk in his boss' high-rise office.

There is nothing wrong with Abbas' dreams, and Bani-Etemad is implicitly critical of a government that makes it not only so difficult to pursue them but also downright dangerous. She is also critical of a society in which Tuba's miserable eldest child, Hamideh (Homeira Riazi), now pregnant with her second child, regularly returns to her family for refuge after her debt-ridden husband brutally takes out his frustrations on her.

Hamideh's plight is echoed by that of her younger sister's best friend, who is subject to terrible abuse from her older brother.

What keeps these developments and more from being hopelessly grim are the loving ties that surmount petty differences and sustain the family through adversity. Yet there is a limit to just how much love can do, and the increasingly suspenseful "Under the Skin of the City" takes its leave at just the right moment, causing us to wonder if, with the Rahmat-Abdi family, that limit has been reached.


'Under the Skin of the City'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Complex adult themes

Golab Adineh...Tuba

Mohammad Reza Foroutan...Abbas

Baran Kowsari...Mahboubeh

Ebraheem Sheibani...Ali

Mohsen Ghazi Moradi...Mahmoud

A Magnolia Pictures release. Producer-director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Screenplay Bani-Etemad and Farid Mostafavi. Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian. Editor Mostafa Kherghepoush. Production designer Omi Mohit. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

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