Given his tendency to film protracted sequences of people driving around, watched from the point of view of a stationary camera inside the vehicle, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has now made what seems like the ultimate Abbas Kiarostami film: In this one, we never leave the car.
Shot in digital video, with a camera placed on the car’s dashboard, the movie is presented in 10 sections, each one featuring a conversation between the unnamed driver, a woman in her 30s, and her passenger of the moment. The camera will move from driver to passenger, but will linger on each rather than quickly crosscut in the manner of more conventional films.
Although an impression of randomness is conveyed by the moment-by-moment naturalism of the conversations, with their many repetitions, hesitations, banalities and one character’s struggles to say, or avoid saying, just what they mean, the film seems rather tightly structured. Each sequence serves its purpose. There’s as much plot and incident in Ten as there is in most dramatic stories; it’s just that it’s all being served up in a radically different way.
In fact, although the above description may make the film sound like some dreadful formalist experiment designed to appeal to the most rarefied tastes, this is, I think, Kiarostami’s most accessible film yet. In his previous films — most notably And Life Goes On … (1992), A Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) — the mode was postmodern, either intuitively or by design. They showed an awareness of the crisis of fiction, of the idea that the suspension of disbelief is a watery concept in an age of little or no faith.
If these films had merely been austere, then one might chalk them up to some elusive Eastern tradition. But they were also self-conscious in a way familiar to any Western viewer who had been exposed to Godard or to any artist for whom the medium had become part of the subject matter. The difference with Kiarostami, though, is that he has been making films in an ostensibly devout and definitely repressive society. The elliptical, self-referential nature of his storytelling seems to be as much a matter of caution as it’s an acknowledgment that the old collusion between storyteller and viewer has come into question. It may just be that an avant-garde approach appeals to his need for subterfuge.
In any event, Ten, with its tight, minimalist structure, is the first Kiarostami film I’ve seen that didn’t, at some point, wander into inscrutability. The car’s unnamed driver (Mania Akbari) is a divorced woman who’s remarried, and the first sequence is one of several conversations she has with her young son. (The time span of the film isn’t clear, but it would seem to cover a couple of weeks.) The boy, Amin (Amin Maher), hates his stepfather and claims to hate his mother, partly because she testified in court that his father was a drug addict, though she tries to explain to him that such extreme (and untrue) claims are necessary for separating couples. Apparently just asserting “irreconcilable differences” doesn’t cut the mustard in Iran.
Subsequent passengers include the driver’s sister, an old woman she picks up who’s going to pray at a saint’s mausoleum, and a prostitute who jumps into the car under the impression that the driver is a man. These last two are very yin-yang; the old woman, who goes to the mausoleum three times a day, can’t say two sentences without lapsing into some ritualized blessing; while the prostitute, a giggling hysteric, sounds stoned and is surprisingly profane (this may be the only Iranian film you’ll see with the word “nookie” in the subtitles). Although the driver’s attitude toward the religious old lady is politely remote, she decides to start visiting the mausoleum herself, which leads to her acquiring another passenger, a young woman who’s about to be married but ... suffice it to say there are complications.
There’s nothing obscure about any of this. It’s simply the story of a woman trying to get on her with her life after a divorce and remarriage, her futile negotiations with her difficult son (who, if this were an American film, would be in therapy) and her encounters with various other women who are trying to cope with their own problems. That it’s as engrossing as it is, is a testament to a director whose paring away of the inessentials has reached some kind of maximum pitch, where little is shown and much is revealed.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.