Imported Iranian movies freely excoriate their nation’s sociopolitical conditions, and yet the land of mullahs and doe-eyed tykes is conceived of here as a “closed,” Islamo-Stalinist dystopia that precludes such dissent. The preconception’s demolition could start with Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Under the Skin of the City, both cosmopolitan essays on future shock, Iran’s anti-feminism, and the stress-tattering of the familial fabric. Bani-Etemad’s generational melodrama observes a blue-collar dynastic collapse worthy of Lillian Hellman, but stays steadfastly fixed on the quotidian of Tehran life.
A 48-year-old veteran of docs and fiction, Bani-Etemad is a pragmatic feminist, and like her breakout film, Nargess (1992), Under the Skin is a conscientious taboo-breaker. Bani-Etemad dares to glimpse a woman dancing and show us female hair being washed (the censors bitched, the filmmaker prevailed), but I prefer her strategy for managing the no-male-female-contact rule: a neighboring wall from beyond which hellacious brother-sister “honor” beatings can be heard. When the teenage victim runs away, her best friend (Baran Kowsari, Bani-Etemad’s daughter) furiously breaches the wall and smacks the abusive brother down.
The family at the movie’s center is led by Tuba (Golab Adineh), an aging, co-dependent matriarch with a layabout husband and a textile factory job. The younger son (Ebraheem Sheibani) fights for reform, the eldest (Mohammed Reza Foroutan) struggles for a visa to Japan so he can support the family, and the eldest daughter (Homeira Riazi) routinely returns home with her children after spousal pummelings. Bani-Etemad adroitly erects intersecting social critiques within these commonplace lives, and avoids sermonizing in favor of experiential right hooks. What’s hard to forget is the volleyball game between dozens of pitch-black chadors, or the grim visage of the bruised eldest daughter as she’s told to kiss her enabling mother-in-law’s hand. Bani-Etemad is not above questioning her own cultural role: On election day, a decimated Tuba directly addresses a documentarian’s camera with the question that titled Bani-Etemad’s 1992 doc, “Who do you show these films to, anyway?”
Hardly a model for realpolitik honesty, Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun imagines a Nigerian civil war in which expression-free Navy SEAL Bruce Willis saves mission doctor Monica Bellucci by bombing hundreds of Nigerians. Forget that Doctor Bellucci is as viable as the Olsen twins playing the Brontës; this Black Hawk Down theft is a trial by cliché until the climax, which suggests a dress rehearsal for the torching of Baghdad. The depiction of African death squad butchery is appropriately appalling, but in the end, of course, it’s the U.S. military that heroically suffers for justice.
“Ten and Under the Skin of the City: Two Iranian Films Put Women in the Driver’s Seat” by Jessica Winter