UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, 2001)

A trenchant, powerful film about contemporary urban life, Zir-e poost-e shahrUnder the Skin of the City—is yet another marvel from Iran, a nation that has been lately generating a disproportionate number of the world’s most wonderful films. In this instance, the filmmaker is Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, whose estimable Nargess (1992) doesn’t quite prepare one for the brilliance of her achievement here—against the background of Iran’s 1997 parliamentary elections, a moving examination of the harshness to which working-class lives, in Tehran, are subject in a season of agitation and hope. Bani-Etemad has been working as a writer and a documentarian for a very long time; with this film she announces herself as nothing less than her nation’s premier epic historian during a turbulent time when Islamic fundamentalism is being bravely challenged by elements of an oppressed citizenry. Among relatively recent films that engage Iran’s contemporary realities, Bani-Etemad’s film is probably the one most accessible to American audiences.

One must begin with the film’s central character: Tehran itself. For me, the film’s documentary portrait came as something of a shock. For Tehran 2001, a stand-in for Tehran 1997, is a teeming modern city infiltrated by western commercial influence, as testified to by billboard advertisements and the fast food joint where the characters dine. (One of them describes the mozzarella cheese on a pizza as “rubber.”) Indeed, as matters play out, the viewer is sometimes at a loss to separate homegrown from foreign influence. Tehran is, alas, another modern city of corruption, a carnival of possibility and hope from under which a Persian rug is perpetually poised to be pulled. For all the city’s moral murkiness, though, its sights are breathtakingly beautiful. (Non-city lovers may take what I say here with a grain of country salt.) The angled overhead vistas of the bustling metropolis that Bani-Etemad and her stunning color cinematographer, Hossein Djafarian, provide suggest a gorgeous, if crowded world of skyscrapers above and cars below—a world whose vulnerable workers may easily, at any moment, be lost. It’s a world with which most Americans can scarcely claim unfamiliarity.

Bani-Etemad and co-scenarist Farid Mostafavi concentrate their story on a single family, all but one of whom live in the cramped quarters that the parents own in a Tehran suburb. The titular head of the house is Mahmoud Rahmat-Abdi (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi), the patriarch, but even the fact that he is older than his wife, Tuba, doesn’t obscure the fact that his traditional authority in Islamic culture and Iranian society has been undermined by a number of factors. It is Tuba who earns the family’s keep, by working grindingly in a factory. It is Tuba who, at a relatively late stage in life, is pursuing, after work, a basic education. And, though early on she is oblivious to the TV coverage of the election campaign that hums in the background, it is Tuba who votes. She is a workhorse, doing all the cooking and, one suspects, the lion’s share of the housework, once she arrives home, her back in torment from the day’s factory labor; but it is she who wields the authority that normally would be her husband’s due.

Tuba’s affliction, an habitual cough, signifies her work and, hence, ironically, its mixed blessing: income, and some authority at home; otherwise, vulnerability. Hers is no seasonal illness; the factory at which she works has contaminated her lungs. She is sick, but she is alive, mentally as well as physically (the point that her schooling makes). By contrast, Mahmoud is lame; his affliction signifies his being permanently out of work, holed up in the house, uninterested in much of anything—in several different ways, impotent. He is self-pitying and resentful.

Tuba (Golab Adineh, in a great performance) is the soul of her home, but she is no less that at work. Nearly all her co-workers in the all-woman factory are younger than she, in most cases, considerably younger. She is looked up to, and no wonder, for she is the model of sociability that contrasts with her spouse’s nonsociability. Bani-Etemad does a terrific job of portraying the huge textile/paper factory in two (pardon) intertwined ways. There are shots that stress the harshness of the labor as each worker, on her feet, womans her gigantic machine; there is one angled overhead shot—what filmmaking, this!—that discloses rows and rows of such laboring women, their discomfort much increased by the heavy garb they are required to wear, as far as the eye can see. On the other hand, during breaks the women congregate in small groups at tables, sharing home problems with one another, and supporting one another in their shared travail. Without affectation, without any trace of “taking charge,” probably without even realizing that this is the case, Tuba seems to lead her group. Here, in these get-togethers, the humanity of the women contrasts with the inhumanity of the workplace in other regards. It’s as if Tuba, and other women like her, are consciously or unconsciously determined to retain their humanity against enormous odds. Perhaps a more accurate description—for, after all, these women can be seen as simply doing their best to cope with an oppressive environment—might be this: Bani-Etemad herself is asserting this humanity of theirs in the face of the dehumanizing forces arrayed against the workers. In any case, the breaks these women are allowed are all too brief; when an off-screen male voice ends one by ordering the women back to work, it’s devastating, not the least so because of the compression of political commentary that Bani-Etemad achieves in this instance.

Tuba and Mahmoud have four children. Their elder daughter, married, no longer lives at home. However, Hamideh (Homeira Riazi) continually returns home, seeking refuge each time her husband beats her. This he does now, even though his wife is pregnant with their second child. Economic circumstance dogs him; he is debt-ridden and possibly out of work. Someone makes some remark similar to this: “Men shouldn’t beat pregnant women.” Men should never beat women, period—or other men, for that matter; but surely there’s irony here on a number of fronts. One is this: Hamideh’s pregnancy doubtless has intensified her husband’s sense of irresolvable economic burden, for which he blames both her and her pregnancy. However irrational this may be on his part, it subtly shifts our focus from what otherwise might have been a soap operatic note of family turmoil to an enriched consideration of Tuba’s factory woes, for which the abuse that Tuba’s daughter suffers provides a metaphor. Indeed, the off-screen spouse who delivered, off-screen, the punch whose bruising result we see on Hamideh’s face becomes subtly linked to the off-screen managerial male voice that ends the factory workers’ lunch break. This connects the two in terms of a traditional assertion of male prerogatives, but at the same time riddles this with the socioeconomic difference between them, creating a thesis and antithesis whose synthesis is the terrible irony that Iran’s economy seems incapable of keeping males employed and solvent, conditions upon which the traditional assertion of male prerogatives now depends. It isn’t just enlightenment that’s challenging Islamic orthodoxy, then; it’s also economic hardship.

We experience Bani-Etemad’s film, as did Iranians, from the vantage of the outcome of the 1997 elections, which expressed the people’s progressive aspirations but left these to collide with an entrenched order of clerics hell-bent on nullifying the election results. (The resemblance between this circumstance and our own 2000 presidential election and its outcome is too painful to pursue.)

Hamideh functions in the film as a touchstone for a line of interesting inquiry. Her victimization, her status as a punching bag, isn’t as simple as it first appears. Certainly it connects her with her mother by dint of the factory’s assaults on Tuba, both in terms of the hierarchy of its operation and the drudgery of the labor (daughter’s bruised face, mother’s bruised lungs). Nevertheless, Hamideh’s victimization also connects her with her father, whose depressing passivity hers unexpectedly mimics. Her lack of authority in a male-dominated culture and nation finds a mirror-image in Mahmoud’s undermined authority, underscoring Bani-Etemad’s implicit point that Iran in its current state is pretty much failing everyone, and those who divide themselves from one another on various grounds (age, gender, economic status) miss the point that they all precariously exist in the same boat. Moreover, Hamideh provides the occasion for our pivotal insight into the unformed and equivocal nature of her mother’s political existence. Just as she ignores the coverage of the election campaign on her own television, Tuba keeps sending Hamideh back to her abusive husband. She sees no other way, being sufficiently tied to reactionary thinking, not to mention that she also probably feels overwhelmed by the prospect of more family to take in and support. But Tuba’s children challenge her, finding the idea that Hamideh should be returned home for recurrent abuse intolerable. In a society steeped in old ways but struggling towards the authentic self-determination of its citizenry, the young may have much to teach the old. Above all, Tuba wants to do what’s right, but what’s right isn’t crystal clear to her. For instance, she (though a little less than her husband) chides her high school age son, Ali, for neglecting his homework in favor of dissident political activity, while Bani-Etemad suggests we need to weigh the benefits to the boy in terms of which endeavor—and it isn’t exactly either-or, for Ali is passing all his courses—is contributing more to his total education.

Mahmoud and Tuba’s younger daughter is Mahboubeh, who goes to what we would call middle school. (Mahboubeh is played by Bani-Etemad’s own daughter, Baran Kowsari, who gives the weakest performance in the film.) Her best friend, Masoumeh (Mehraveh Sharifinia), lives next door. Masoumeh’s speaking up is interpreted by her older brother as talking back, and, horrors, she went (with Mahboubeh) to a pop concert; so he beats her up, referring to her and to Mahboubeh (to whom he says this) as “sluts.” Neither girl is sexually active, let alone sexually promiscuous, so the full force of the word exposes, unchallenged, the speaker’s threatened state of mind as Iran, apart from its clerical influence, moves in the direction of acknowledging females as human beings and as equal human beings—too slowly for justice, too quickly for Masoumeh’s brother.

This film is full of echoes, and we reasonably relate Masoumeh’s plight at home, as a child, to Hamideh’s plight at home, as a wife. Masoumeh, her face swollen from her brother’s hand, drops out of school and runs away, sleeping in local public toilets and nearly starving. Her brother couldn’t care less; but Mahboubeh delivers a smack across his face that, given the sociopolitical context that Iran currently provides, proves as much a stunner as the smack that the daughter applies to the face of her mother in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). In the movie theater, I gasped.

Every bit of this film is terrific, but one of its most remarkable passages involves the meeting in a park between the two girls, sisters in every sense but biological, weeks after Masoumeh has run away from home. Bani-Etemad and Djafarian conjure a fabulous view of a birch-wooded area that appears bleached; it literally seems to be disappearing into nothingness. The girls hug; police come out of nowhere, perhaps because they are after the runaway, perhaps for other reasons (drugs, activism); Masoumeh runs away again, and Mahboubeh loses her again, quick on the heels of their reunion. Thus the image of the woods vanishing into nothingness before our eyes returns to our mind’s eye as something prophetic and revelatory. Bani-Etemad sustains throughout the film a motif of human beings being lost to their context and environment. For instance, in that overhead angled long shot in the factory to which I earlier referred, where is Tuba? The identical garments of the workers according to religious and cultural prescription, as well as the camera angle that hides the workers’ faces, make location of Tuba, or of anyone else in particular, impossible. Here is a vision of workers disappearing into their labor.

Tuba Rahmat-Abdi has two sons, Abbas and Ali. Abbas is the sweetest boy, the most loyal and loving son imaginable. (Mohammad Reza Foroutan is endearing as Abbas; he is aglow with humanity.) A quick-footed, agile young gofer for a garment manufacturer, he dreams of making enough money to ensure his mother’s retirement from work, his father and mother’s economic security, and his younger brother’s college education. He is also ambitious for himself, and he is in love with one of the boss’s employees, an exquisite beauty whom he (very) shyly approaches. He has been raising money to pay for a visa that will take him to Japan, and, he hopes, to a job there, which would enable him in a year’s time to marry and to give back to his family everything he feels is their due. Meaning all for the best, he does things, with his father’s assistance, however, that leave his mother divested of her property. In order to rectify this at the last minute (I am withholding twists and turns of the plot), Abbas ends up driving a truck for an operation in which illegal drugs are smuggled in bridal gowns. Unbeknownst to him, though, Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani, adolescence personified) has smuggled himself into the back of the truck, and on the long, quiet trip back to Tehran we see the younger brother’s handiwork: along the mountainous way, in long shots of indescribable beauty, one by one bridal gowns seemingly drop from the truck as Abbas, anxious that he will be caught, proceeds in ignorance. He stops and, seeing what has happened, knows better than Ali the predicament he is now in. There will be a mark out on him. The confrontation between brothers, both of whom had been motivated by the fullest measure of unselfish love, is terribly moving, and now Abbas is a hunted man, his future canceled—this, the responsibility of Iran, Bani-Etemad leaves no possibility to doubt. Her ultimately tragic film, in which Abbas is lost forever as he runs off, like Masoumeh, pleads for a system in which people can live, work and play in fairness, justice and peace. Rarely has a film shown, with such sledge-hammer force, how the choices people make are provoked by the circumstances in which they find themselves—circumstances that are economically and sociopolitically determined. Bani-Etemad has wrought a great work from essentially neorealist and melodramatic materials. Moreover, she has found a way, purely contained by her narrative, to render Abbas’s dreamed-of capitalistic solution in Japan as corrosive and backstabbing, and a chimera. It’s heartrending. Let me just say that naïve Abbas experiences a Japanese blow right in Tehran.

Finally, Bani-Etemad has framed her story with cool and beguiling irony. At both the front and back of the film, Tuba is being interviewed by a documentary film crew preceding her vote in the election—the election that many had hoped would solve the issue of Iran’s future. Tuba is testy. At the start, she walks off, refusing to deliver comments that have been scripted for her to recite. At the end, looking directly into the camera, she speaks from the heart, in her own words, thus becoming, by dint of her own “script,” a filmmaker herself:

There was a time when we complained, but you said we were fighting a war. It was the truth, so we accepted it. After the [Iran-Iraq] War you asked us for patience, because the country was in ruins. So once again we put up with it all. Now there is someone who wants to save us, so I’m here to vote . . .

She is interrupted. “Technical difficulties.” Might she start over? Her final remarks end the film on a bleak note:

Just forget about it! I lost my house, my son ran away, and people are filming all the time. I wish someone would come and film what’s going on right here! [Tuba points to her heart.] . . . Who the hell do you show these films to anyway?

I can’t answer that, but Under the Skin of the City proved to be the most popular film of the year in Iran. Too, it won the jury prize at Moscow.

Amnesty and protection for Masoumeh; amnesty and protection for Abbas; a home, not a rented space, for Tuba and her family; a fair and just society. Does one dare hope? Does one dare dream?

B(U)Y THE BOOK

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