Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by the exceptional quality of most of the Iranian films that have reached these shores–pictures like “Baran” and “The Color of Paradise”–but this new effort from Rakhshan Bani-Etemad comes as a severe disappointment. “Under the Skin of the City” is meant to portray the sad plight of women under the current regime, but compared to “The Circle” or “The Day I Became a Woman,” it strikes a melodramatic, soap operatic tone and feels distinctly unsubtle and overwrought.
The central figure is Tuba (Golab Adineth), the late-middle-aged matriarch of a lower-class Tehran family. She works hard both outside her small house and within it, since her disabled husband Mahmoud (Mohsen Ghazi Moradi) provides little help. Tuba’s main concern is the well-being of her four children. The eldest, the handsome and ambitious Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), wants to secure a work visa to go to Japan, where he’s certain he can make plenty of money for his family (he also has his eye on a beautiful secretary whom he needs resources to wed). The elder daughter Hamideh (Homeira Riazi) is married, but is regularly battered by her husband and returns home periodically with her child, so that Tuba is compelled to reconcile her repeatedly with the son-in-law and his mother. The younger daughter Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari) is independent and progressive, and is infuriated when her closest friend, next-door neighbor Masoumeh (Mahraveh Sharifi-Nia), runs away after being beaten by her overbearing brother. And the younger son Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani) skips school and gets into trouble for engaging in political activism. Significant generational differences are clearly operating here, as well as clashes of values between traditionalism and more modern ways. But the greatest threat to the preservation of the home Tuba is determined to maintain is the fact that Abbas and Mohmoud are scheming to sell their house to finance the boy’s foreign travel. As if all this weren’t incident enough, there’s a subplot involving Abbas’ boss and his mistress, as well as the young man’s involvement in drug smuggling after his plans go sour (an episode which concludes in a drive across a dangerous mountain road).
“Under the Skin of the City” is intended to demonstrate the troubles that beset a loving but increasingly hard-pressed clan in contemporary Iran, and especially the treatment that women must endure not only as a result of an oppressive political system, but because of the power of men over them (most of whom are portrayed as either wicked, or misguided, or simply inept). The problem is that the difficulties that beset the family are piled on with lachrymose overemphasis; Tuba becomes a sort of Iranian version of Ma Joad, watching sad-eyed as disaster after disaster befalls her home and her children. She’s meant to be a long-suffering character, of course, but when she endures so many and varied tribulations over the course of a mere ninety minutes, it comes to seem like dramatic overkill. Framing the action with two faux TV interviews of Tuba regarding the upcoming parliamentary elections is designed to suggest that only fundamental change will be able to alter the unhappy circumstances we’ve witnessed, but the device comes across as an affectation in this context.
Nonetheless, one has to respect the intention behind the film, and the acting is strong. Adineh is a resolute presence, and she makes Tuba’s struggle against her own fatigue and the threats to her family genuinely moving. Foroutan has real charisma as the charming, headstrong Abbas, and the remaining performers are all solid as well. From the technical perspective the picture is adequate if not visually imaginative.
In the final analysis, however, as a result of its penchant to pile up domestic difficulties instead of establishing a firm focus, “Under the Skin of the City” doesn’t penetrate deep enough to touch a raw emotional nerve.