TEN

Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami

With Mania Akbari and Amin Maher

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films

***1/2

INT. - CAR - DAY. INT. - CAR - NIGHT. Ten scenes.  Two cameras on one car's dashboard. A director absent from the "set." Apart from the avant-garde, filmmaking doesn't approach Degree Zero as closely as TEN. (Kiarostami could only have gone further by shooting all scenes in one take.) For me, it represents the birth and death of something rather elusive. Its detractors would say that it represents a descent into artlessness; (my original reaction); its defenders would say that it  uses DV to capture a rare, unselfconscious emotional honesty, a point I'm more dubious about. One thing's for sure: it's a major departure for Kiarostami. He's apparently become a feminist, while abandoning his fondness for long shots of landscapes.

An unnamed woman (Akbari) drives around Teheran picking up a variety of passengers. The film counts them down in reverse order. In parts 10, 5, 3 and 1, she travels with her son (Maher), with whom she constantly argues. She also picks up a prostitute (7), her sister (9),  a depressed young woman who's afraid that she will be hurt by her fiancee ( 6 and 2), a woman abandoned by her husband (4) and an elderly, devoutly religious woman (8). Together, they form a cross-section of Iranian society.

One can defend minimalist art easily by claiming that such work lends importance to small gestures that might otherwise be overlooked. It's a facile defense. Nevertheless, it applies to TEN. When the opening scene spends fifteen minutes depicting Amin and his mother arguing, it might be unwatchable if not for Amin flinging his bookbag around and looking out the window as she yells at him. She never appears in this scene, although her voice makes her feelings towards him and her ex-husband, with whom Amin is now living, pretty clear (to say the least.)

Kiarostami's editing and choice of camera angles always imply a hierarchy of power. In part 10, they suggests that Amin is a budding  bully, hogging the camera's attention for the entire scene. On the other hand, his mother is an upper-middle-class photographer who blithely talks about hiring a maid. She's self-aware enough to be righteously angry about individual men and Iranian institutions'  sexism, enough so to be pushy towards  some of her passengers who are affected by these conditions without really understanding their feelings. At one point, she declares "a woman has no right to live!" Well, sometimes she has no right to show her face. The focus on Amin for this in entire scene, which introduces both major characters, is  a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of female invisibility.

However, there are situations in which the driver has real power over her socially marginal passengers, especially the prostitute and old woman. Talking with her sister, she points out an elderly woman and remarks that one day she'll be in her position.  Both scenes focus on the driver.  Her passengers are simply offscreen voices.  The prostitute's voice is a forceful presence: as articulate, cynical and argumentative as she is giggly. (The elderly woman is  far less imposing, but she gets a brief amount of screen time.) As she leaves, the camera finally  adopts the driver's point of view, moving outside the car to watch her walk down the street and pick up a john. At this point, the driver's privilege is reflected by the camera position.

In the Kiarostami oeuvre, TEN most resembles TASTE OF CHERRY.  (TASTE OF CHERRY could have been called THREE+.) Even so, the driver isn't a female equivalent to her suicidal counterpart in TASTE OF CHERRY. He apparently had no family ties or interest in talking about his everyday life. She's caught in a spiderweb of family connections, trying to remain on speaking terms with her husband, dealing with a son who all but hates her and learning to live with a new husband. The claustrophobia of riding  (a recurrent Kiarostami motif) was lessened by  long shots of landscapes in AND LIFE GOES ON and TASTE OF CHERRY. In TEN, there are no beautiful landscapes. No beautiful cityscapes either: we can barely see out the window. Even more than TASTE OF CHERRY (in which the driver and passenger are never seen in the same shot and the actors never really interacted), TEN uses the car as a social environment rather than a potential source of escape.

After presenting himself (HOMEWORK, CLOSE UP) or actors playing himself (AND LIFE GOES ON, THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES) as relatively benign paternal figures, Kiarostami's view of filmmaking turned ugly in THE WIND WILL CARRY US. It now looks as if that film represented a real moral crisis, one which will permanently affect his style. He has withdrawn from  TEN, speaking about his position in the press kit exactly in those words. However, he still wrote a script (drawn directly from conversations with his actors), according to an article in SIGHT & SOUND. He also  edited it (from 23 hours of footage to 90 minutes), with jump cuts that make one wonder how much time has passed, remind us that we're watching a film and subtly add a dimension of intensity. Nevertheless, he took himself down a notch or two in the hierarchy of power in the course of making TEN. An improvement over the waffling self-hatred of THE WIND WILL CARRY US, it feels like the first step of a genuine new direction. At worst, Kiarostami loses a great deal of expressiveness by restricting himself to close-ups, but TEN remains a gripping drama. Likely to be widely hated, I suspect it will utterly baffle non-auteurists, even as Kiarostami tries to "de-auteur" himself. His previous focus on men and use of landscapes are its structuring absences, marking off the novelty of the territory he covers here.

It would be easy to launch a self-righteous tirade about the U.S. State Department's refusal to  offer Kiarostami a visa to attend last year's New York Film Festival. I'll just say that while the Iranian censors asked Kiarostami to cut  so much of TEN that it would be unwatchable, we lucky Americans are getting to see the complete version (which would probably be rated PG by the MPAA). We just can't see the director himself. Isn't cultural exchange wonderful?