The Iran explored by director Rakhshan Bani Etemad in her new film “Under the Skin of the City” doesn’t seem like a component of any sinister “axis of evil.” It seems like any other place in which ordinary families struggle to get by, to do right by each other and better their lot in life. While Etemad may not yet have developed the sweeping cinematic vision of Abbas Kiarostami (“Taste of Cherry”) or Jafar Panahi (“The Circle”), she knows her way around a rough-and-tumble domestic drama.
Fast-paced, at times even a bit frantic, “Under the Skin of the City” is above all a mother-and-son story. The matriarch of the Tuba family (Golab Adineh) slaves away in the clatter of a textile factory while trying to keep a lid on her fractious household, a layabout husband and four children of varying promise. Eldest son Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan), who works for a shady clothing manufacturer, is the other breadwinner by default. But poor Abbas really just wants to begin a family and a life of his own. A job lead in Japan is about to pay off for him, but the deed to the Tuba household has been “mortgaged” for his travel visa. This will soon become a stickier situation for Abbas than he could ever have imagined.
Combine this with the fact that one of Abbas’ sisters is enduring regular beatings by her husband while his younger brother is stirring up unrest in the streets of Tehran (giving the father a delicious opportunity to declaim about the futility of “Long Live and Down With” sloganeering), and it’s understandable why Abbas is never far from the end of his rope.
Etemad throws us right into the whirlwind of this family’s problems with dignified aplomb. Though we sometimes feel we’re missing bits of crucial backstory here and there, the characters are so relatable that we’re with them all the way, sympathetic to the end. The Tuba family are unhappy in their own specific way, and in that way they’re just like the rest of us.