My copy of Asghar Farhadi’s The Beautiful City contained an introduction by Peter Scarlett, the former director of the Tribeca Film Festival. After providing a rough plot outline, he makes a disclaimer, of sorts, saying that this 2004 Iranian film might sound like a Hollywood weepie, with its story about a boy trying to prevent his friend’s execution for murdering his girlfriend, but it’s not a weepie, Scarlett says — It’s better than that.
He’s right, of course, but that assessment does short-change both this movie and its connection to great Hollywood melodramas. The Beautiful City borrows heavily from classical Hollywood filmmaking: In its reliance on traditional shot/reverse shot in medium close-ups, a mostly static camera and straightforward framing, as well as an economical shooting and, especially, editing style. (There’s also a pivotal scene, unique in its point of view, in which the camera shoots above and over the shoulder of the female lead, creating tension and pathos.) The editing style, along with the moral force of its characters, is one of the main reasons why the film moves so quickly.
Where it differs from classical Hollywood filmmaking is in its Iranian particulars: And here I would have to differ from Scarlett again: What fascinates me about Beautiful City aren’t the parallels to Western culture, but the differences. For instance, if a boy commits a murder as a juvenile, he can be executed for it when he turns 18, but only if the surviving parents pay the blood-money to the state. Further, if a girl was murdered, the payment is half of what it would be if a boy was murdered.
Those are eye-openers, to be sure, and you could never say that the characters were OK with the way things are. Still, what really carries this movie is not a feeling of oppression, but its nemesis: A very subtle and sophisticated resistance to fundamentalist morality and law, and an openness to sex and sin, if you will. My favorite scene in the film occurs in an odd cafe, decorated with portraits of a handsome Iranian man — a large photograph on the wall pictures him shirtless, with a very prominent nipple, just up, out of focus slightly, to the left of the female lead.
At this dinner, in these surroundings, A’la, the best friend of the boy who is to be executed, and Firoozeh, the sister of the boy, whose name is Akbar, manage to flirt heavily, suggest the possibility of infidelity, preliminarily discuss their possible marriage as well as pointedly touch on the double standards exacted on men and women in Iranian society, all without ever really saying anything specific about any of that. It’s all feints, and eye contact, or not, smiles of varying sizes and brightnesses, teasing, double-meanings, second-guessings and tiny, little pushes past social boundaries, particularly as it relates to his youth and their differences in age. (It’s my understanding that an older man marrying a younger woman is common; the other way around, not.) It’s a wonder-full and simply brilliant scene.
Remember, following the revolution in Iran, there was a crackdown on the liberalization of culture, and of course, this affected filmmaking. Iranian filmmakers had to say what they wanted to say, often without coming right out and saying it. So Iran’s film culture is under similar pressures that American directors were during what we have come to call the period of classical Hollywood filmmaking. One had to say more with less. That sort of discipline challenges certain kinds of artists, rather than shuts them down. (Someone like Judd Apatow could use a little of that discipline, I think, without wishing censorship on him, that is.) Iranian filmmakers have bloomed and influenced world film culture disproportionately.
There are three instances in this film that have little to do with Hollywood filmmaking and everything to do with art and modernity as director Asghar Farhad expresses how his characters reconcile the expectations and tyrannies of a conservative religious order, and the rich and deep Persian ethical history that informs and enriches their every day lives:
1) The film doesn’t reveal what or where The Beautiful City is until the movie is just about to wind down, and even then, it’s an aside, but one that points out class differences and separations, with some humor.
2) The film opens with credits over black, but with a peculiar soundtrack underneath: I didn’t recognize the sounds I was hearing, exactly, but I became somewhat sure later, during a scene in the exercise yard of the juvenile detention center. It was not until much later as A’la is just about to make a decision that will change everyone’s lives that the same sounds occur in the soundtrack, at a similar volume. A’la looks out the window and seems to realize something, and then I got it, too.
3) The sudden ending made me gasp, and was perfect, even though I don’t know what happened to any of the characters I’d come to care about. Rather than feeling cheated, however, I felt like Farhadi had challenged me.
To have faith.
Of course, you realize: I’m in love with this boy.
Click here for some more balanced photos from the movie.
Apparently, it’s not on DVD. Download it here.