MoviesEntertainmentVehiclesIranReviewsAbbas KiarostamiTehran (Iran)

A conceptual tour de force and a brainiac's road movie, Abbas Kiarostami's "Ten" goes from chilly abstraction to hot emotion in less than 60 seconds. The setup couldn't be simpler or the dividends more rarefied. Without the camera ever leaving the car, an unnamed woman (Mania Akbari) drives around Tehran, running errands and giving lifts to passengers. Most of the passengers are women, but her most frequent companion is her son, Amin (Akbari's own son, Amin Maher), a child of about 10 who bats his feathery lashes as he rains down vitriol on his mother's covered head.

Over the course of 94 minutes that have been parceled into 10 discrete sections, the driver picks up four women, ranging from an ancient widow on her way to her thrice-daily prayers at a mausoleum to a giggling prostitute with sore feet.

Insistently democratic, the focus shifts in each section from the passenger to the driver, a beautiful young divorcee who embodies modern Iran in all its contradictions. Although she wears carefully applied lipstick along with the regulation overcoat, the scarf covering her head often drapes loosely enough to reveal tendrils of hair dancing above her manicured eyebrows.

More tellingly, even when she leaves the car, the driver never slips under a chador, the black shawl that since the fall of the shah has served as one of the country's most contentious symbols of faith and oppression.

Kiarostami has said in interviews that he was initially interested in making a film about a psychoanalyst who, because of a bad divorce, was forced to treat clients in her car. More conventionally, the woman now behind the wheel has also gone through a bad divorce but works at some indeterminate profession that her son uses as ammunition against her. Imprinted by the experience, the driver shifts from kind to hectoring during her roundabouts, doling out tough love to her heartsick sister and cautious advice to a friend hoping to marry a reluctant suitor. As the women's conversations leap from men to sex, love, marriage and prostitution, their voices unite in a chorus of frustrations and grievances about a world in which, as the driver exclaims, "a woman has no right to live."

Until now, women and their rights haven't really been Kiarostami's thing. Of course that doesn't make him any different from the majority of directors working today, and there's no reason why he should be compelled to make films about women any more than, say, Michael Mann.

The only reason I broach the issue is to raise my own manicured eyebrow at the idea that, in contrast to the critical hype, there's anything revelatory about either the film's narrative minimalism, which is at best exceedingly clever, or its sexual politics. A number of Iranian directors, Dariush Mehrjui and Mohsen Makhmalbaf among others, have been making interesting films about women for years; perhaps more startlingly for those unfamiliar with the country's realpolitik, Iran now counts more talented female directors than this country does.

Since its premiere at Cannes, "Ten" has been showered with the sort of praise that critics tend to lavish on directors who are ordained geniuses. "Ten" is pretty swell, especially in its first 15 minutes -- but after the first 30, the film essentially offers up more of the same. Shot in digital video with two cameras fixed to the car hood, it has none of the pictorial beauty of Kiarostami's "Where Is the Friend's House" and "And Life Goes On," and its conversational mosaic never reaches the intellectual heights of "Homework" and "Close-Up." "Ten" is one of the best films to open so far this year, but greeting each new work from a favored director as if it were equally brilliant can't be good for anyone, the director included.

It's a natural tendency for critics to collect filmmakers, yet it can be tricky when director and critic hail from such radically different worlds as Iran and the United States. Several years ago, a colleague explained that the reason the two leads in an Iranian film had to be played by a real married couple was that the woman exposes her ankle during the story.

For his part, Kiarostami has been rebuked by at least one Iranian critic for his depiction of women, notably in "The Wind Will Carry Us." His offense: Showing a man talking to a veiled young woman, which the critic likened to a metaphoric rape. I found the reproach baffling but instructive, and it certainly gave a frisson to the painful scene in "Ten" in which a woman removes her head scarf, a scene that will probably be censored in Iran.

As a document of resistance, that simple image is a knockout. Kiarostami enjoys shooting in cars nearly as much as the late John Frankenheimer, but, unlike most Western directors, he tends to strip narrative down to the chassis, and in place of the usual screenplay beats, he offers up seamless blends of fiction and nonfiction, mood and ideas. The story for "Ten" draws on his screenplay and his rehearsals with the nonprofessional cast, and while everything in the car falls under the rubric of fiction, there's nothing fictional about either the emotions inside the car or the bustle of daily Tehran glimpsed through the windows. "Reality inspires fiction, and fiction inspires reality," the director has said. "Fiction is almost good when you make it a documentary. Both feed each other like a circle."

As it happens, the circle is a perfect descriptor for Kiarostami's metaphysical road movie, in which the beginning of the journey and its end meet to form a loop. ("The Circle," coincidentally, is also the title of another Iranian film, Jafar Panahi's tough feature about escaped female prisoners.)

"Ten" opens and closes with a scene with the driver's son barking a command at his mother. This kid with the face of an angel already knows how to speak in the voice of oppression. In his every insult and in her every tender and raging response, it is possible to hear echoes of a far louder dialogue about the present and future of Iran. The driver is putting a lot of miles on her odometer, but she still has a way to go.


MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: As chaste as it gets

Mania Akbari...The driver

Amin Maher...Amin (the son)

Marin Karmitz and Abbas Kiarostami present "Ten," a Zeitgeist Films release. Director-writer-photographer-editor Abbas Kiarostami. Music Peyman Yazdanian. Closing song Howard Blake. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In Persian, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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