Human Moments: Adventurous Directors Put Iran on the Movie Map. (at the Movies)

Article excerpt

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. …