Several large leaps of faith take some of the dramatic steam out of “Unveiled,” an otherwise well-acted and accessible lesbian drama that also flirts with issues like loss of identity and anti-Muslim tensions. Well-mounted pic by writer-director Angelina Maccarone (“Everything Will Be Fine”), could have a small career in niche situations beyond Germany and gay fests.
Spunky German actress-singer Jasmin Tabatabai, born in Iran, essays one of the most challenging roles of her career as Fariba Tarizi, first seen in traditional chador on a flight from Tehran. As soon as the plane has left Iranian airspace, she has a clandestine smoke in the restroom. But arriving in Germany, she’s promptly arrested for having forged travel documents.
Fariba applies for asylum, claiming she was persecuted for political reasons. Only when she manages to call her female lover, Shirin, who’s still back in Iran, does the viewer learn the real reason for Fariba’s flight to the West.
While in the airport detention center, Fariba gets to know a fellow detainee, student activist Siamak (Navid Akhavan), who’s suicidal about being sent back. When Siamak offs himself, Fariba cuts her hair, puts on his clothes and passes herself off as him, even managing to smuggle his body out of the center in her suitcase.
As well as being, frankly, unbelievable, this development is further weakened by Fariba’s sudden talent for performing a convincing drag act, complete with 5 o’clock shadow, at a moment’s notice. Later scenes show her secretly taking showers in the middle of the night, but at no time is her character allowed any unease or ineptness (comic or otherwise) in assuming the look and gait of a man.
Fariba gets a laboring job in a sauerkraut factory near Stuttgart, where she finds herself falling for co-laborer Anne (Anneke Kim Sarnau), an attractive single mom with a 9-year-old son. Anne takes a liking to Fariba, whom she thinks is just a shy sorta guy, but then develops a deeper attraction: During a date in Fariba’s lodgings, she comes on to her and, despite Fariba’s misgivings, the two briefly kiss.
Complications ensue when Fariba hears Siamak must return to Iran in two weeks, given new reforms back home. Anne becomes involved in an elaborate scam to get Fariba another passport, while the emotional/sexual relationship between the two remains unresolved.
Plot’s other leap of faith is that Anne, after getting up close and personal with Fariba, would never have figured out she’s a woman. Aside from one tiny hint — while holding her hand in a car one night — the issue is never explored, making Anne’s discovery of her friend’s gender (and her subsequent decision) dramatically implausible.
These basic flaws in the screenplay are a pity, as perfs by both actresses are excellent, especially Tabatabai as a 30-year-old woman who has to cope not only with the loss of her own identity and cultural background but also with the denial of her sexual leanings. Tabatabai draws a convincing portrait of a woman desperately suppressing her natural desires out of concern for her own safety, a double lie that eats away her insides, and there’s a genuine erotic charge to her and Sarnau’s scenes together.
Overall, however, film is more mainstream than the subject suggests, especially with later sequences in which the two femmes team up to get Fariba another passport. And it’s on that level, rather than as a realistic drama, that the pic is most successful.
Tech package is smooth throughout. German title means “Foreign Skin.”