Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Abbas Kiarostami's Ten is a very simple film on its surface, but its thematic and emotional depths are far more complex than its elegant formal minimalism would suggest. The film features ten conversations of varying lengths between a woman (Mania Akbari) and the various passengers she picks up while driving around Tehran, including her seven-year-old son, her sister, some friends, and a few strangers who she gives rides to. Kiarostami sets up a digital camera in the center of the car's dashboard, and alternates between shots angled at the driver and shots angled at her passenger. With only one exception — after she drops off a prostitute she'd picked up, the camera watches out the front windshield as the prostitute walks away and picks up a client — there are only these two camera set-ups in the entire film, sometimes remaining trained on one face for extended period, sometimes switching back and forth between the two partipants in these discussions. It is an utterly basic formal structure, and yet the film is never less than enthralling, because its wide-ranging dialogues are so interesting, and the portrait it builds of an Iranian woman's life is so compelling.
As with many of Kiarostami's films, the division between reality and fiction is interrogated, here in an especially subtle fashion. Everything about the film gives the appearance of a documentary, from its minimal camera set-ups and the rough, anti-glossy digital image quality to the casual, conversational way in which all the dialogue is delivered. And yet the dialogues certainly don't feel unscripted, even though most of the actors are non-professionals and even though the performances often feel loose and improvisatory. The dialogue in the film is too probing, too on-the-nose, to feel like unscripted reality; it's very often obvious that the dialogues have been constructed specifically to deal with one aspect or another of a woman's experience within Iranian culture, from religion and dress codes to divorce and motherhood. At times, the driver takes on the role, almost, of an interviewer, prodding her passengers with questions about their feelings and their experiences, trying to get them to talk about their lives and their problems. Akbari is a photographer and painter, and she would go on to become a director as well, and she falls naturally into the role of interviewer.
The film's artifice is perhaps most obvious in the first of the ten conversations, in which the driver picks up her precocious, angry son Amin (Amin Maher), who berates her for getting divorced and for not being a more dedicated mother. Throughout this remarkable conversation, the camera remains trained on Amin, privileging his perspective — it's not until this conversation is over, 15 minutes into the film, that Akbari herself finally appears. Much of the conversation is captured in unbroken single takes, with occasional cuts that are easily disguised by the jostling of the car; it gives the impression of a single long shot, focused on this boy's face as he argues vehemently with his mother. The content of the conversation is unusually direct and adult for a fight between a mother and her young son, with Amin telling her that she's selfish, that she shouldn't have divorced his father, that she only thinks of herself.
It's obvious that Amin is parroting back things that his father has said, but the dialogue, despite its casual delivery — and Amin gives a great, relaxed, naturalistic performance — also feels very much written, putting into this boy's mouth the kinds of things that are said about independent, thinking women in this culture. The rest of the film will further explore various attitudes about women in Iran, but right here at the start Kiarostami is establishing the dominant male perspective that women should be subservient and domestically oriented, a perspective that's apparently passed on from fathers to sons.
This is a woman who just wants to be able to resist that controlling male domination, to assert her own rights and her own individuality. An important thread that winds through several of these conversations is the concept of owning one's self. The driver does not want to "belong" to a man or anyone else, and she doesn't want to feel like she belongs to her son either, like she has to foresake everything she wants to do in order to care for her family. The woman is based on Akbari's own character, and like the actress playing her, she's a creative person, a photographer and painter who travels and works a lot and thus can't always spend time with her family. Her son obviously resents her for this, and despite her attempts to explain her decisions, he remains convinced that she is simply selfish for wanting something for herself, for wanting a life beyond the home, beyond childcare and domestic chores. There are several conversations with Amin spaced out throughout the film, and in the later ones, after he has moved in with his father, he seems slightly more relaxed, less prone to anger, but sadly no more accepting of his mother's life and desire for self-definition.
The idea of self-definition also comes up in a conversation with a prostitute who the driver gives a lift to one night. Throughout this conversation, the camera remains trained on the driver, never showing the prostitute's face, focusing on the driver's reactions to this other woman's thoughts about her profession. The prostitute seems to think in a way that's surprisingly similar to the driver, advocating independence and freedom from the constricting routines of marriage and monogamy. She's jaded, because she's seen men take phone calls from their wives, sign off with "I love you," and then go to bed with her. As a result, she sees women who tie themselves to a man as foolish, echoing the driver's own advice to a friend who defined herself exclusively in terms of a man, and was devastated when he left her for someone else.
That scene is contrasted against a conversation with a different friend who takes a breakup much more in stride, ending with an amazing, mysterious moment in which this woman pulls off her headscarf to reveal a close-cropped, shaved head, simultaneously laughing and crying as the driver asks her why she did this. She can't articulate it, but there's a real element of catharsis in this scene, a sense that the woman just wanted to do something to define herself, to express her independence in some way. Even the sight of her taking the veil off is electrifying, in a culture where virtually all the women wear these scarves, never showing their heads or their hair in public.
Ten is an exceptional movie, its formal rigor and simplicity providing a perfect framework for Kiarostami's probing study of the lives of Iranian women. These layered, rewarding dialogues subtly deal with issues of religion, domesticity, relationships between men and women, motherhood, and sex. But though there's an obvious current of social criticism running through the film, it's all couched in daily routines, friendships and relationships, with a deceptively casual dialogue style in which the subtext of social inquiry is deftly interwoven with warm humor and some intense emotional content.