A grim urban fable about the ethics of forgiveness and retaliation in contemporary Iran, writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s social drama tracks the efforts of two likable youths, teen thief A’la (Ansari) and ailing single mom Firoozeh (Alidoosti), to convince a man (Gharibian) to grant his daughter’s killer clemency before the state hangs him. Ravaged by grief and his own sense of indignant righteousness, the man, an illiterate doctor named Mr. Abolqasem, ignores their entreaties. Instead he attempts to finance the execution of 18-year-old Akhbar, Firoozeh’s brother and A’la’s best friend, even though Abolqasem’s money would be better spent on an operation for his crippled daughter.
Pitched as a Persian issue film about “blood money,” a decidedly archaic custom within Islamic judicial law that allows plaintiffs to pay a fee for legal vengeance (with the life of a woman being worth half that of a man’s), Beautiful City edges closer to De Sican realism than Stanley Kramer--esque disquisition. Dealing with forbidden topics like drugs, crime and prostitution, the story line, though full of yawning gaps (why did Akhbar kill?) and oblique revelations (is Firoozeh dying, or is she a dope addict?), is engrossing, as is the tender, tentative romance that develops between Ansari and Alidoosti (star of I’m Taraneh, 15). With its gritty, street-level aesthetic and arabesque of moral ambiguities, Beautiful City is a rough-edged Iranian gem that dares to end without a polished, clear-cut resolution. (Now playing; Film Forum.)—Damon Smith