Asghar Farhadi's second feature, while remaining true to his local worldview of the ever-shifting moral dilemmas that arise between people in crisis, also carries an extremely ironic title. "Beautiful City" derives its name from the small juvenile prison where we first meet Ala (Babak Ansari) as he helps celebrate the birthday of fellow inmate and best friend Akbar (Hossein Farzi-Zadeh). Akbar is none too happy, because due to this being his eighteenth birthday, he'll soon be transported to the adult prison where he'll serve out his sentence. Upon release, due to a more minor crime, Ala makes it his mission to free his friend by soliciting his release through the father of the girl he murdered. What follows in "Beautiful City" is the relentless and confusing dynamics that arise between Ala, Akbar's sister Firoozeh (Taraneh Alidoosti) and the father (Faramarz Gharibian) as questions of guilt, forgiveness and the convoluted bureaucratic process of Islamic law.
As a sophomore film, "Beautiful City" is a huge leap forward for Farhadi, both visually and thematically. Not only does the film make wonderful use of the city's arching doorways and shadows, but the slum where Ala meets (and eventually falls for) Firoozeh juts up against a set of railroad tracks that serve as the metaphor for the desire to escape. The film's final scene, ending on a wonderfully ambiguous note, also emphasizes the dreamy atmosphere of two worlds colliding. Taking as its theme the idea of redemption- even though we barely meet or gain any semblance of empathy for Akbar- will also become a founding principle in later Farhadi films. The commerce of ideas and words over action, as Ala and Firoozeh navigate the careful circumference of human emotions with a murdered girl's family, trying to reason with them and save his friend's life, expertly displays Farhadi's prerogative. In one brave scene, Ala and Firoozeh have a conversation in a restaurant, where Firoozeh promplty lights up and begins smoking a cigarette. It may be a commonplace image in 99% of our movies today, but I can't recall a single moment in any Iranian film that defies the subjugative structure of a society so plainly. While Farhadi (and for that matter the whole new wave of Iranian filmmakers) owe a debt of gratitude to Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Farhadi is also one of the few dragging Iranina cinema into the modern.