Under the Skin of the City opens with a group of older, burqa-wearing women being interviewed by a documentary crew about politics in Iran as relating to an upcoming election. At the forefront is Tuba, a mother of four, grandmother of one and wife of a invalid, a woman whose inability to properly express her feelings on her status in society becomes more and more strange, as her world unspools for the next 90 minutes. The film’s final scene revisits the interview, this time with Tuba speaking clearly and surely as she recaps the movie’s events. But the camera crew's equipment fails and her words are lost to the ether. It’s just one more indignity suffered by a woman whose strength seems inversely proportionate to the few good things that happen to her.
Tuba earns the family bread by working in a textile factory while her husband lies at home with a bum leg. Her eldest son, Abbas, toils as a mild-mannered dirty worker for the factory’s boss, dreaming of achieving greater things by getting a visa to work in Japan. Daughter Hamideh lives with her abusive husband, with one child and another on the way. Third child Ali, much to his parents’ dismay but not necessarily their horror, is dabbling in revolutionary politics instead of attending his high school classes. Mahboubeh, the youngest, also goes to high school and whispers conspiratorially with her friend, Masoumeh, while yearning for the adolescent freedom American teens take for granted. But scenes of such unusual normalcy as a group of veiled teenagers playing a rousing game of volleyball are what make Under the Skin of the City interesting in the face of a run-of-the-mill plot that ends with an abrupt downward spiral in Tuba and the family’s — especially Abbas’ — fortunes.
Director Rakhshan Bani Etemad is a woman, and she places a heavier focus on the world as it relates to female characters, perhaps more than her male counterparts would, showing the pressure heaped upon Tuba as matriarch of a pitfall-consumed family. It’s not easy being a woman in Iran (hell, it’s not easy being a woman anywhere, but there are better places to be born the fairer sex) and it’s clear where Bani Etemad’s concerns lie. Her agenda gives her film its much-needed edge.
The one thing wholly absent from the film, actually, is anything overtly to do with the Iranian government. One gets the feeling that government has little to do with the role of women in Iranian culture and society, besides making hard and fast rules, and that the gender roles have been irreversibly assigned centuries before. Tuba does what she can with what she has, and is about as enlightened as can be hoped. And that’s a lot.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Madstone Theaters (Briarwood Mall, 462 Briarwood Circle, Ann Arbor) as part of EXTRA: The Premiere Pic Series. Call 734-994-5540.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].