Under the Skin of the City

"Very Good"

Under the Skin of the City Review


Despite claims that Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Under the Skin of the City tells a universal story of one mother's attempts to maintain family unity in the face of destructive outside pressures, it's difficult not to see the film as distinctly Iranian. Set against the backdrop of the 1998 parliamentary elections that, for many Iranians, held the promise of social and political reform, the film charts the story of Tuba (Golab Adineh), a wife and mother who, when asked by reporters about the upcoming elections during the opening scene, is speechless - partly because her mind is focused solely on caring for her three children and husband, but also, perhaps, because she fears expressing an opinion at all. In Tuba's life, the political sphere takes a backseat to her everyday tasks and dilemmas; as a result of her spouse's physical disability, Tuba provides for her family by working all day in a factory and tending to her tumultuous household at night.

Tuba's eldest son Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan) is hard at work trying to obtain a visa - believing that Japan holds more profitable opportunities than Iran - and dreams of returning home wealthy enough to both support his family and impress a lovely office girl who has stolen his heart. To raise money for the visa, he not only borrows from his shady employer, but also sells the family's house, a decision that proves unwise when his carefully thought-out plans begin to unravel. Abbas is part of the burgeoning group of Iranians desperate to escape their home country in search of financial prosperity, and his altruism and loyalty go hand in hand with his entrepreneurial spirit. His dreams are not big - he merely wants to return home rich enough to buy his mother a new house - but his heart is.

Abbas' capitalistic optimism reflects a surprising modernity, and yet it is dispiriting to find female subjugation at the heart of Under the Skin of the City. Abbas' older sister is grappling with an abusive husband who beats her for even the tiniest infraction, and it is refreshing to discover that it is Abbas and his brother who are outraged by this injustice; Tuba, on the other hand, condescendingly remarks after the latest incident, "You were being fresh with him again, weren't you?" Supposedly justified abuse, however, is a regular component of female life in Iran, as is proven when Masoumeh (Mahraveh Sharifi-Nia), the best friend of Tuba's youngest daughter Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), flees her family after receiving a brutal beating from her brother as punishment for attending a pop concert. Even Tuba, an admirable bedrock of courage and love who has willingly taken on the male role of sole breadwinner, has, because of a society that strives to keep women in their place, never learned to read.

Bani Etemad, a well-known filmmaker in her native Iran who alternates between making fictional and documentary films, employs a minimalist aesthetic for Under the Skin of the City that infuses the film with an earthy and sobering realism. Sparse images such as an aerial shot of schoolgirls decked out in identical black robes and scarves playing volleyball amplify the director's somber critique of Iran's violent and oppressive sexism. Yet if women are the film's nominal victims, they are also its unlikely heroines: Tuba's determination and dignity are admirable, and, when she finally gets another chance to speak to television reporters about voting in the elections, the power and eloquence of her convictions (although sabotaged by the cameraman's technical difficulties) reverberate with the fieriness of a revolutionary call to arms. When Mahboubeh strikes back at the arrogant brother who set her friend Masoumeh on a ruinous path of poverty and disgrace, it's a strident blow against a society that refuses to play fairly. In her - and, in the film's heartbreaking climax, Tuba's - indignant courage, one can only hope that the future of Iran lies.

Aka Zir-e poost-e shahr.



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