Clive Bradley reviews Ten, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Iranian films have dominated art house circles internationally for a number of years, now. Unlike the high-octane, visceral energy of the so-called Latin American renaissance, these often award-winning films tend to be small in scope, personal in focus, and “slow” by Hollywood standards. With Ten, Abbas Kiarostami, whose work usually deals with the blurred lines of reality and fiction, has made more or less the archetype of this style of film making. The entire feature-length movie takes place in the front seat of a car.
Through ten episodes with different passengers (though some of them repeat), we are introduced the social complexity of modern Iran. The nameless driver (Marina Akbari) is a middle-class woman who is divorced from her husband, and who has only part-time custody of her son, Amin (Amin Maher). Here at once we are confronted with an image of modern Iran which confounds stereotypes and prejudices. She chose to divorce her husband. She claimed he was a drug-addict because it’s so hard for women to get divorces. She has a new husband, whom the son doesn’t like. She has a career (though it’s not entirely clear what). On the whole, she doesn’t seem unhappy with part-time motherhood. The boy, for his part, tells her she’s selfish — but not, it seems, for these obvious reasons, rather, because she is.
As well as picking up her son and taking him to grandma’s house, she gives lifts to female friends, and one night picks up a prostitute — who got into the car thinking she was a man who had stopped for her — and drives her around asking questions about the job. The interrogation, like everything else she does, is delivered with blank detachment. Although we spend the entire film with her, we don’t really get to know her. When a friend who’s been dumped by her fiancée reveals she has cut her hair, and beneath her veil she’s completely cropped, it seems like a more powerful expression of emotion than anything the driver has revealed to us. Amin cries — normally with frustration — when he argues with her. But then they are laughing. Exactly what she feels about her child is hard to say.
It’s a novel way to explore contemporary Iran, or at least its middle class. Certainly, what emerges is a complex picture in which there is the façade of the Islamic Republic, but beneath it little of substance. Women wear the veil, but confess to not knowing if there is a God, and that they rarely pray. Amin is angry with his mother for divorcing his father, but like any child might be.
Does it work? Not quite. The scenes with her son are electrifying, mainly because of an extraordinary performance by Amin Maher as the boy. But the “real time” conceit of the individual episodes results in too much gazing out of windows waiting for the driver to come back from the shop for this viewer’s taste; and some of the earlier episodes are less intriguing. The inscrutability of the central character is frustrating; and I wanted, sometimes, to be allowed to see more of what was outside the car. We don’t; the camera remains steadfastly fixed on the faces of driver and passenger (presumably using two little cameras at the front of the car, since the shots don’t seem to be from different takes). It begins to feel like a formalistic device only — the chosen form, stuck in the front of the car, starts to verge on a gimmick.
But as an insight, if only a partial one, into the real Iran, it is worth seeing.
Reviewer: Clive Bradley