National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

Human moments

Adventurous directors put Iran on the movie map


The Oscar show at least managed to get finished by midnight, but seemed merely a movie version of the military overkill unfolding in Iraq. The fact that many who appeared in the proceedings are appalled by Bush’s war didn’t make the proceedings any less the annual celebration of Hollywood’s ability to impose its product on the rest of the world.

The fact is that American movies in recent years have become a good deal less interesting and adventuresome than those of Iran. Under the Skin of the City, the new feature directed by that country’s top woman director, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, though a family melodrama with a fairly conventional structure, is a powerful presentation of restlessness and discontent among the working-class population of Tehran. Set in 1997, the movie begins as Tuba (Golab Adineh), a middle-aged woman who works in a textile factory where lung problems are common, is being videotaped on the role of women in the upcoming elections. Unable to deliver an apparently scripted, sanitized speech, she walks away from the camera; the next sequence shows the way in which her fellow workers create a community of sharing despite their difficult lives.

Tuba is trying to hold her family together. Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan), her oldest son, is scheming to emigrate to Japan where he can make better money; Hamideh (Homeira Riazi), the married daughter, has an abusive husband to whom she is heartbreakingly returned; Mahboubeh (Baran Kosari), the younger daughter, breaks the tight moral code of this society and pays heavily for it; Ali (Ebrahin Sheibani), the college-age son, is involved in anti-government activity, while Tuba’s disabled husband warns the boy that political activity is useless.

The critique of women’s conditions is especially effective because it is not discussed. We simply see veiled women going about their everyday activities. The characters are sympathetic without being idealized. Surprisingly, the film is not really gloomy, even though Abbas sells the family home to speed up the buying of his visa, and is swindled in the process.

At the end Tuba is again being filmed, and this time speaks directly to the camera, recounting her long-repressed indignation. A technician interrupts her, asks her to begin again. “Just forget about it!” Tuba explodes. “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!” (She points to her heart.) “Right here! Who the hell do you show these films to, anyway?”

“Under the Skin of the City” was Iran’s top-grossing film in 2001. U.S. audiences will quickly recognize that its characters and problems are not peculiar to that country.

Ten is the fascinatingly enigmatic new movie of Abbas Kiarostami, the most acclaimed of Iranian directors, whose earlier work (“Through the Olive Trees,” “Taste of Cherry”) rates with the best of Italian neo-realism. Kiarostami makes movies on small budgets; a simple drive into a devastated countryside will be filled with wry, deeply human moments.

“Ten” makes clear that his stripped-down style is far from simple. An unnamed woman (Mania Akbari) drives around Tehran. The movie’s title refers to the number of trips she makes, each a conversation with a single passenger. Sometimes the camera is fixed on her, sometimes on the passenger, or back and forth between the two. Subjects, and even specific lines of dialogue, are echoed in later segments. The focus is so strong that the sense of intensity is constant.

The first episode is a painful mother-son exchange between a round-faced 12-year-old boy (Amin Maher) and the driver, in which each line seems to exacerbate old wounds. They yell at each other: The boy blames his mother for having divorced and remarried; she lied about his father in court, calling him a drug addict. The mother is equally overwrought. “This is a society,” she says, “in which women have to lie in order to get a divorce.” During the whole scene -- about 12 minutes -- the camera is on the boy, who covers his ears and appears to be in real pain. The driver is shrill in her insistent demand for freedom; there is a beginning of sympathy for her only at the end when the camera shows her -- a handsome, carefully groomed young woman who wears her headscarf as loosely as possible.

The quarrel has been so harsh that we feel uncomfortable listening in on their private pain. Kiarostami fixed digital video cameras to the car’s dashboard, turned them on, and let his actors drive away. Of course, he prepared them beforehand and edited the footage of their exchange, but the result provides an especially powerful sense of reality, a clash of real desires between mother and son.

In succeeding episodes we meet the driver’s sister, a friend who has been abandoned by her husband, and an acquaintance who is uncertain of her boyfriend. The viewer is led to compare these women with the driver and to reflect on the mystery of human destiny. Even more provocative are encounters with two very different passengers: one a prostitute picked up at night, whose face is never seen; the other a naively pious elderly woman. The prostitute, wanting to shock, sums up the difference between streetwalkers and married women: “We’re the wholesalers. You’re the retailers.” With the older woman, who talks of pilgrimages and saints, the driver at first seems merely amused, but by the end of the film her conviction seems to have had some effect.

There is no simple climax to this minimalist film, but subtle changes have taken place in several lives. The woman who was unsure about marriage has shaved her head, giving Kiarostami a pretext to show the image of a bareheaded woman, a real shock in Iran. The driver has allowed her son to go live with his father, making a later exchange between them less angry. Though still putting her career and her freedom first, the mother seems more at peace, less self-centered.

Those going to movies for pure fun will prefer Bend It Like Beckham, a surprise hit in Britain last year centering on a 17-year-old Punjabi girl’s passion for soccer. Jess Bhamra, the earnest younger daughter of middle-class immigrants living near Heathrow, shocks her mother’s understanding of gender roles when she wears shorts to train with the girls’ auxiliary of a local football club. Jess’ older sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi), a compulsive shopper who is about to get married, is held up as an example: While awaiting a similar destiny, why can’t Jess learn to make a real Punjabi dinner?

English soccer madness partly accounts for the movie’s success, and it may help to know that David Beckham, the star of the Manchester United team (and husband of one of the Spice Girls), can kick the ball so that it curves past the goalkeeper. But the movie doesn’t require special knowledge of the fine points of the game; the grace and energy of the young women athletes is irresistible, and photographer Jong Lin manages to turn soccer into a new kind of dancing. Director Gurinder Chadha establishes a warmly comic tone in which it is easy to enjoy the largely predictable mix-ups in both Jess’ family and that of her English teammate Jules (Keira Knightley). “Bend It Like Beckham” isn’t as richly complex an experience as “Monsoon Wedding,” but it triumphs through good acting, precision editing and a lively musical score that jumps back and forth between the dancing at Pinky’s wedding and the climactic soccer match.

Chadha dedicated the movie to her father, a gesture that is echoed when Jess’ father (Anupam Kher) supports her at critical points, and Jules’ father, a rabid soccer fan, played by Frank Harper, offers a fine, farcical explanation of the game to his dim-witted wife, Paula (Juliet Stevenson). Although the film’s sense of pacing is good, its plotting is fairly routine, with Joe (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the coach of the girls’ team, becoming the love interest for both Jess and Jules, and with Paula crudely caricatured for her concern about lesbianism. Parminder Nagra is delightful as Jess, and Joe seems a handsome and trustworthy mentor for her. When Jess complains that Joe could not understand why she punched an opponent who called her a Paki, he assures her he does, because he’s Irish.

After leaving the theater, some may be tempted to feel superior to “Bend It Like Beckham.” While watching it, however, most audiences will be deeply stirred and charmed. Chadha has a loving comic eye for her characters; each of them learns something during this goodhearted film, and so do we.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is His new book, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, has just been published by Continuum Books.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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