If anyone were to ask me what I did as a director on this film, I’d say, “Nothing, and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.”
— Abbas Kiarostami
Breezily naturalistic yet disconcertingly self-reflexive, Abbas Kiarostami’s films deny their audiences the traditional comforts of movie-going — the neat narrative, the polished artifice. The Iranian master has made a career of demolishing our complacency as viewers, blurring the divides between fiction and documentary, spectator and screen. That indeterminacy, so uniquely his, can be both daunting and enthralling. If puzzling over where art ends and life begins is the chief challenge of watching a Kiarostami film, then embracing the gap between the two may be its primary, and wholly novel, pleasure.
His newest movie is a dependably brainy provocation. Aggressively minimalist but far from stingy with its gifts, Ten is a disarmingly lifelike, yet formally rigorous, road movie. The premise is so simple, it’s high concept: two digital video cameras affixed to a car’s dashboard, one framing the driver, the other the passenger. The entire movie is comprised of conversations — 10 in this case — between the two, as the car navigates the eerily familiar streets of downtown Tehran.
The first scene begins innocently enough. A young boy (Amin Maher) climbs into the passenger seat, his mother (Mania Akbari) remaining offscreen. As the shot stays on the sullen kid, he gets into an argument with her, one you can sense they’ve had before. He berates her for divorcing his father; she defends her right to be happy. The kid bites: he tells her to keep her voice down, as women should when in public. Her own rant takes her beyond family and into society, whose constraints forced her to fabricate a drug problem for her husband to be granted a divorce.
We don’t get to see her until some minutes into their conversation. Wearing stylish shades and lipstick, a white chador over her head, the strikingly pretty driver seems the embodiment of the new Iran. Her anguished spat with her son, it turns out, was merely a prelude to a tour of Iranian womanhood. While the precocious brat rides shotgun in three other segments, the others feature women: an anxious sister, a sad-eyed friend, a matron hitching a ride, and a giggly prostitute looking for business.
The mosaic that comes together before our eyes is less despairing than poignant. The recurring theme is how these women have been let down by their men — and, by extension, Iranian society. Her sister and her friend each hop in the car with a world of man trouble to unburden. The prostitute reveals that she had been dumped by a fiancé. The driver dispenses tough-love advice (“We women are unhappy. We don’t know how to love ourselves”), but the sob sessions affirm her dismal view of women’s place in their patriarchal society.
According to Kiarostami, his original idea was of a psychoanalyst and her passengers driving around in her car — a surprising tidbit considering how apt the metaphor is for the movie that he eventually made. Confining the movie’s entire action in the automobile, Kiarostami finds the perfect visual correlative for the subject of distaff Iran. A private haven in a public backdrop, the car becomes the setting for outbursts and epiphanies of all sorts, revelations that these women couldn’t make in their own, male-dominated homes. Here, literally, is burbling tension in the middle of the crowded streets.
Aside from the prostitute sequence, which plays like Taxicab Confessions but staged, the segments all throb with unpredictability, an organic vibe that keeps the movie from becoming too schematic. Using non-professional actors (except, tellingly, the woman who plays the prostitute), Kiarostami elicits bracingly naturalistic performances from his cast, and prompts awed questions about his technique. Played by a real mother and son, how much of the pair’s backstory is true? What was ad-libbed and what was coached? How much of the content was predetermined?
Such questions aren’t uncommon with Kiarostami’s films. For many directors, achieving this kind of naturalism would be victory enough. But Kiarostami’s interests are vaster, his talents more prodigious. His project is nothing less than a redefinition of how we see movies. Ten represents his most radical interrogation of authorial power yet, as the epigraph above suggests. The film questions the power relationships immanent in cinema: between the director and his actors, between the artist and his audience. Centering as it does on a most banal activity — driving — Ten also expands our notion of what is worthy of a filmmaker’s gaze — and, by definition, our attention.
In his quest to shift the ground beneath our feet, Kiarostami could well be our generation’s Godard (who, not coincidentally, is a huge fan). Like Godard, Kiarostami rejects the way cinema has been pigeonholed by decades of narrative and commercial imperatives. For him, there is no line separating life and the movies. To accept that line is to surrender to stultifying illusions that discourage thought, independence, and imagination. Michael Atkinson, in a Village Voice piece last year, offered an eloquent summation of this radical approach to filmmaking:
The reality of cinema is all there: the experience we have watching, the passage of minutes, the affectionate distance between the actors and their roles, between the genre tropes and their erstwhile significance, between the camera itself and what it photographs — all of it happily naked to the eye and mind, none of it slickly masked by editing sleight-of-hand or plot.
Those words were written in praise of Godard; they apply just as well to Kiarostami.
The resemblance between the two extends all the way to Kiarostami’s penchant for gnomic utterances: “We can never get close to the truth except through lying,” goes one typical Kiarostami nugget. Hard to pin down, Kiarostami’s movies are never forbidding, something I admittedly can’t say for Godard. The equanimity of a true humanist flows through his work. Ten may not be the masterpiece its admirers would like to think it is (particularly when stacked up against Kiarostami’s previous achievements), but it’s as gentle, intelligent, provocative, and radical as any movie you’ll likely see this year.
It attests to Kiarostami’s greatness that the most memorable scene in this movie preoccupied with form is a decidedly human one. Late in Ten, the driver’s lovelorn friend makes a stunning revelation and sheds unhappy tears. Quietly epiphanic and heartbreaking, the image sears itself into the consciousness — an impact for which Kiarostami modestly disclaims credit. “In all my films, there are shots where the emotional impact goes beyond direction, triumphing over it, and the emotion becomes more powerful than cinema itself,” he says in a director’s statement for this film. Such humility is precisely what makes his movies so momentous, and the experience of watching them so illuminating.