As I write this, ACMI (The Australian Centre For Moving Images) are currently in the midst of their Asghar Farhadi retrospective where they are screening the entirety of the director’s oeuvre. Whilst at this point in his career, he has only made five features (although his sixth, “The Past”, is in post right now and is expected to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), the majority of them are very hard to find and see. As a huge fan of Asghar Farhadi’s previous two films (“About Elly” and the masterpiece “A Separation”) I was very excited at the chance to finally catch up with his first three. Alas, as is my luck, illness struck me down and stopped me from seeing Farhadi’s feature debut “Dancing In The Dust”, but I was able to catch up with his second film “Beautiful City”.
Akbar has just turned eighteen. For the past two years he has been held in a rehabilitation centre for a murder he committed at the age of sixteen. Being condemned to death, now that he has turned the legal age for the death sentence to be carried out, Akbar is transferred to the adult section of the prison to await his execution which could be any day now. However it is everyone’s belief that the Akbar of today is not the same person as the sixteen year old boy who committed the violent act that landed him in prison and thus does not deserve the death penalty. A’la, a prison friend of Akbar, upon his release is determined to find Akbar’s plaintiff in an attempt to gain his consent for a pardon and to stop his friend’s execution. Along with Akbar’s sister Firoozeh, they have the difficult task of trying to convince a grieving father to give up his legal right to have his daughter’s murderer killed and whilst attempting to do this releasing just how much themselves they are going to have to give up to succeed in their task.
What I love about Farhadi’s films is the way that they are told. Everything appears natural and nothing is forced. I am convinced he is an expert storyteller, particularly when it comes to the script. His stories are very tightly structured but come across as anything but. When you are watching his films, everything feels in the moment and it is hard to pick up immediately things that may become very important later down the line. He does not put undue emphasis on objects or plot devices to signify there importance, rather he trusts his audience to be able to retain all of the information he is presenting. Unlike “A Separation” which is a drama that plays like a thriller, “Beautiful City” is much more formally structured; in fact it is almost presented like a novel rather than a film as we continually learn more about our characters as their situations increase in importance. Complications continue to arise throughout the story that you would never suspect at the beginning of the tale when it is being told to the point that by the end of the film, the film is full of morale and personal dilemmas throughout. What might have seemed like an easy task of getting an old man to reverse his decision about a death sentence ends up having far greater consequences for everyone involved, as characters have to work out just how much they are willing to sacrifice or what they are willing to live with themselves for, for the initial task to be successful.
The complexities of “Beautiful City” are what makes the film special but never once is the film hard to understand. Another thing that I love about Farhadi’s films is that he presents them in a world of grey. Nothing is black and white in his films and he never victimizes any of his characters. He presents them honestly as we always get both sides of the story. While we are always rooting for A’la and Firoozah to succeed in getting Mr. Abolqasem (the plaintiff) to change his mind in regards to the death sentence, he is never presented as “the villain” of the film. Personally I find his story the most heartbreaking in the film as he has had his only daughter taken from him and yet he has to regularly suffer through the family of his daughter’s murderer coming to his house and trying to get him to give up something he lawfully deserves. I was actually quite shocked by the fact that this harassment (which is really what it is even though it is done under the guise of civility) is allowed and at such a full on level. In fact at one stage in the film A’la flat out tells the man that he will not back down until he gets his consent, meaning he will continually come to the man’s house until he wears him down. “Beautiful City” was such an eye opener for me particularly in regards to Islamic Law because during the film Mr. Abolqasem has had enough of the abuse and goes to the prison to demand the execution happen as quickly as possible, where he is told he would then have to pay Akbar’s family “blood money” for his death. Otherwise he is told to accept “blood money” from Akbar’s family for his daughter’s death and then pardon the boy who no longer deserves to die. While it is shocking that money can have such an influence in the life or death of a person under Islamic Law, what really shocked me was the fact that Mr. Abolqasem would have to pay double the “blood money” to Akbar’s family for his death than what the “blood money” he would receive for his own daughter’s murder, and for the simple fact that Akbar is male. When Mr. Abolqasem is told this he is furious because he feels he is being penalized for the fact that his deceased loved one is considered inferior because she was a girl.
While a lot of American movies have vengeance as a back drop that is almost presented to the point of fetish, here we have an example of a system that has a lawful vengeance killing part of it but throughout “Beautiful City” it becomes apparent just how much emotional strain is put on a person when it comes down to their decision to terminate a life. It isn’t as easy as you would think and you can see the pain regularly on Mr. Abolqasem’s face regarding his decision. He is also torn because he believes that if he does pardon the young boy, he has made a deal against his daughter’s life and you can see this heavily weighing on the poor man, even when it appears to be in his best interests to accept the blood money and move on with his life, it turns out to not be that simple.
“Beautiful City” is less a film about actions but rather about the consequences of actions and how one small thing (not that I consider the murder of a person to be minor at all) can create a crippling effect on the lives of many. The character of Akbar in the film is as minor as can be, with him only appearing in the first scene, however the consequences of his actions resonates throughout the entirety of the movie with every other character’s subsequent actions being affected by Akbar’s own. While I am reticent to actually go into further details about the plot of the film for the simple fact that I think the film’s surprises are worth keeping quiet on, what I will say is that by the closure of the film’s running time “Beautiful City” turns out to be about just how far each character is willing to go or give up (even if it means giving up their own happiness) to get what they want or believe that they deserve.
As usual for an Iranian film, there is also a lot of social commentary that exists within the film (although it is never at the forefront) but what particularly interested me was the way religion could be manipulated in an attempt to better serve your own purposes. What I mean by this is during part of the film Mr. Abolqasem visits his local priest for guidance where he is told he to let the boy go and forgive his violent act. The priest than reads from the Qur’an a passage about forgiveness, in an attempt to convince the grieving man to grant Akbar a pardon. This however incenses the man who also brings up another passage from the Qur’an that states that he has every right to want and achieve vengeance for the crime committed against him. Both men use the Qur’an and its writings in an attempt to justify their opinion even though their views are conflicting.
As of yet I have not even mentioned the acting but let me say that everyone is brilliantly naturalistic which creates a realism needed for the film to work as well as it does. I must single out Taraneh Alidoosti who plays Akbar’s sister Firoozeh and is simply stunning in the role. She is absolutely mesmerizing on screen and incredibly gorgeous too. Alidoosti is something of a Farhadi regular, appearing in three of his films (“Beautiful City” was their first collaboration) and I remember back when I saw “About Elly” for the first time how mesmerized I was by her back then too. Without giving away details of that film, she is only in the film for the first half of “About Elly” (even though she plays the title character), so it was a great pleasure to spend the entire film with this amazing actor in “Beautiful City”. She is so nuanced in her performance here with much of it being played behind her eyes rather than being outwardly emotive and she is so effective. Likewise, Ahu Kheradmand gives a devastatingly emotional performance as Mr. Abolqasem.
Overall, while not quite as brilliant as “About Elly” and “A Separation”, “Beautiful City” is no doubt another Asgard Farhadi success. Once again he tackles tough emotional subjects but in his usual subtle style. The film is beautifully acted and shot (I loved the shots from Firoozeh’s upstairs window looking down at the train tracks below; they were almost like from a fairytale), but if you go into this film expecting a Hollywood ending, you may be sorely disappointed. Instead of answering every question presented within the film, “Beautiful City” actually ends on a question (with at least one character answering with the simple gesture of lighting a cigarette), thus leaving the audience to determine what will happen next. This unresolved ending may frustrate a lot of viewers but personally I thought it was perfect and fit with the rest of the film before it. For now, Farhadi is three for three with me; bring on “Fireworks Wednesday”.