“Beautiful City”, or “Shah-re Ziba”, an Iranian film from director Asghar Farhadi is many things–it’s got politics, family issues, romance (as much as is possible given the censors), a documentary-style look at life in Iran–but most of all it is a story of the lengths people will go to save those they care about, and conversely the extent individuals will seek retribution against wrongdoers. On both sides, there is feeling of doing the right thing for family, but there are unforeseen consequences that prove otherwise.
The focus of the film early is the 18th birthday of Akbar, who is in a juvenile detention facility in the titular location. He was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend Maliheh when he was 16(part of a suicide pact that didn’t quite turn out as such), but couldn’t be executed as he was too young. At turning 18, this changes, and so he faces the noose for his actions.His friend A’la (Babak Ansari)–really the main character in this tale–seeks to change this scenario. In order for this to happen, he must seek out the victim’s father, the plaintiff, and obtain his forgiveness, his ‘consent’ in order for Akbar to survive. Upon visiting the home belonging to the family of the incarcerated, he meets a weathered looking peddler, and a much younger woman who is presumably this vendor’s wife, and their child. The woman turns out to be Akbar’s sister Firouzeh (Taraneh Aladoosti), and since her brother is apparently the only member of her family (in terms of support), she assists A’la in his task.Their endeavor to commute Akbar’s death sentence leads them to Abolghassem (Faramarz Gharibian), the deceased girl’s father, who lives with his wife (not the victim’s mother–Abolghassem had gotten remarried sometime after she was born) and her crippled daughter. This last bit is significant as the family is looking for money for this daughter’s operation. The father also seeks “blood money” so as to pay to speed up the execution for Akbar.In Iran, as this movie sets out to explain, people pay off to either get the guilty party executed, or conversely to prevent said party from death. Abolghassem wants justice meted out against Akbar–he is willing to go to great lengths to obtain the tomans (local currency) and speed up the execution. A’la, meanwhile, is also persistent, continually ‘bumping’ into the grieving father, and even having the imam (Muslim cleric) at the local mosque use his influence, and sermon, to argue for the opposing side.[pagebreak]As these activities transpire, A’la winds up spending much time with Firouzeh–after all, she does have a vested interest in the outcome of this situation–and her son. They begin to open up to one another, with A’la speaking of his own brushes with the law (he was detained for bag snatching earlier) and Firouzeh revealing things about herself. Their relationship, which starts out as a simple matter of two individuals working towards the same goal, deepens and thus makes the situation more complex.This film, if nothing else, shows an Iran on a more personal level, beyond the headlines, news soundbites and such. It may just be the camera work, but one feels as if this is a documentary, covering the lives of ordinary folk in their daily lives. This includes moments like the scenes in the juvenile detention facility where Akbar and A’la spend time, or the hospital where Firouzeh works, or the scenes outside her home. As a result, the viewer gets drawn into the scenario, and the unfolding events have more of an effect (including–not to spoil too much–the final scenes).Adding to this mood is the lack of music, which might otherwise make scenes too dramatic. This, then, keeps the film simple in focusing on what happens to the characters, even while a whole range of topics is covered. The flick covers corruption, whereby people can (and need to) buy the innocence and guilt of others, the judicial distinction made between male and female victims, and family situations where there are not only arranged marriages, but marriages of convenience (for people to get support and also to get out of a bad situation.The leads give convincing performances as well. These include the final moments featuring Aladoosti and Ansari, and Gharibian’s role as the father mourning the loss of his beloved Maliheh (he turns to her photo often in the movie, even cradling it at one point) who now persists in denying and consent and seeing Akbar’s hanging through. As a glance into another society, and set of individuals’ lives as each does what he/she feels to be the right thing, “Beautiful City” delivers an impact. It’s true that the film’s resolution might leave one pondering, but that is the intent. For many people, these are the choices that life forces them to make.Grade: A-EM Reviewby Andrew Haas4/25/05