|Director: Asghar Farhadi
|Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
|Stars: Taraneh Alidoosti (Firoozeh), Faramarz Gharibian (Abolqasem Rahmati), Babak Ansari (A’la), Hossein Farzi-Zad (Akbar), Farhad Ghaemian (Mr. Ghafouri), Ahu Kheradmand (Abolqasem’s Wife)
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 2004 / 2023 (restored VOD release)
Asghar Farhadi’s sophomore feature, Beautiful City (Shahr-e ziba), which was given a limited theatrical release in the U.S. back in 2004, has been digitally restored and is available to stream, which makes this an excellent time to revisit it. While not as powerful as some of his later films, including A Separation (2011), The Past (2013), and A Hero (2021), Beautiful City is one of the great Iranian director’s formative works, a probing drama that hits on all of Farhadi’s favorite themes, particularly the seemingly irreconcilable conflict among flawed characters who have arguably equal claims to truth or being right. The challenge of Farhadi’s films lies in his refusal to offer easy answers or reassuring conclusions, favoring instead a calculated ambiguity that forces us to consider all sides of the argument, not just the one that seems the most appealing.
Similar to his most recent film, A Hero, Beautiful City hinges on one character needing another character to legally absolve him. In this case, the character needing absolution is Akbar (Hossein Farzi-Zad), a young man who has just turned 18 and has been in prison for the past two years for killing his girlfriend. The occasion of his birthday is a traumatizing one, as it means he is old enough to transfer to adult prison and become eligible for execution unless his girlfriend’s father, Abolqasem Rahmati (Faramarz Gharibian), officially asks for him to be pardoned. Because he is in prison, Akbar cannot appeal to Abolqasem directly. Instead, that job goes to his friend, A’la (Babak Ansari), who has recently been released from prison after serving time for thievery, and Akbar’s older sister, Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti). Firoozeh has been appealing to Abolqasem daily—a humiliating enterprise that she endures with simple determination. She has her own problems, including raising a young child largely by herself because her husband (Farhad Ghaemian) is a drug addict who runs a small shop outside their home.
Farhadi establishes the central tension between Firoozeh and A’la’s desire to save Akbar’s life with Abolqasem’s determination to see him punished for his crime. Both sides have strong arguments for their position, which makes reconciling them fundamentally impossible. Abolqasem’s refusal to forgive is understandable given the enormity of his loss, while Firooseh and A’la recognize that Akbar is not a monster, but rather a young man who made a horrible mistake in his youth (while it is not clearly explained, it appears that he killed his girlfriend as part of an attempted romantic double suicide). Into this conundrum Farhadi weaves the labyrinthine nature of the Iranian justice system and a growing affection between Firoozeh and A’la, who cannot be together because of Firoozeh’s husband. The story is further complicated by Abolqasem’s wife (Ahu Kheradmand), who wants to broker a deal that involves A’la marrying and therefore ensuring continued care for their cognitively impaired daughter.
Shot in an unadorned style by cinematographer Ali Loghmani that compliments the natural rawness of the performances and the insightfulness of Farhadi’s script, Beautiful City makes a strong case for the inherent complications of human engagement when life and death and justice (whatever that may be) are on the line. A humanist of profound depth and consideration, Farhadi sees each of his characters in their own right, allowing them a sense of dignity even when they are at their most desperate, angry, or confused. There are no easy answers in life, a theme to which Farhadi has returned again and again and one that Beautiful City aptly demonstrates can bear the weight of repeated artistic interrogations.
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