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A new face at the wheel

Special to The Times

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami may be an inspiring figure to international film buffs and an irritation to Iran’s censors, but to his first female star, he is like “a little boy in love with life.”

Mania Akbari is not a professional actress. She is a visual artist whose marriage; 10-year-old son, Amin Maher; divorce and remarriage have a fictional reflection in Kiarostami’s “Ten,” his first film dealing solely and provocatively with the lives of Iranian women.

It opens Friday in L.A. It likely will be banned in Iran, but when Kiarostami arranged a private screening last year in Tehran at a hall that seated 215, hundreds more pushed their way in, breaking the doorkeeper’s arm in their eagerness to see the filmmaker’s 12th feature.

“Ten” also screened in September at the New York Film Festival, but the filmmaker was denied a U.S. visa and so was unable to attend. At the time Kiarostami was graciously philosophical about the incident.

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“I certainly do not deserve an entry visa any more than the aging mother hoping to visit her children in the U.S., perhaps for the last time, or myriads of other urgent cases,” he said. “As a privileged person with access to the means of public expression, I feel profoundly responsible for the tragic state of the world, for the betterment of which we the public people have not done enough to ensure. For my part, I feel this decision is somehow what I deserve.”

Instead of dwelling on the past, the unpredictable director, like Thoreau’s man who marches to a different drummer, encouraged Akbari and Maher to speak for themselves at a press conference following a screening at the 43rd International Film Festival here in November.

In the movie, Maher, who plays her cantankerous son, is angry and hostile toward his mother for divorcing his father. But he was overwhelmed by the ovation he had received after the film’s initial screening and was all smiles the next day when he made clear, “I am not as bad as I am in the film. I love my mother a lot.”

“And in real life,” his mother revealed, “he gets along famously with his stepfather.” Originally, Kiarostami had planned to use a psychoanalyst who sees her patients while she drives her car, but when Akbari came to an audition, he changed his approach.

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Instead of an analyst, Akbari drives the car, arguing with her son, and when he leaves, she gradually picks up five female hitchhikers, each with her own set of problems, including a prostitute whom she quizzes about men, sex and love, an unprecedented conversation in Iran.

Carrying the film

Akbari didn’t go to the auditions for an acting job. She went to become better acquainted with Kiarostami, whose work she had admired for years, especially “Close-Up” (1990), about a man on trial for having pretended to be director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (“Gabbeh”).

She wanted to discover the secrets behind Kiarostami’s films. They had met briefly at an exhibition of her art, when he told her he preferred her sketches to her abstract paintings. At the audition, they had a 2 1/2-hour conversation in which he inquired about her background, her unusual (for Iran) personal history and the way she saw the world. Considering her for a role, he had the brainstorm that she had the essence to carry the film.

Smartly dressed with her hair concealed neatly under a chic turban, rather than the usual hejab (scarf), Akbari said through an interpreter that Kiarostami “still tells me that I should give up painting and try directing.

“My impression of him didn’t change during the course of filming. It only deepened. When I said he reminded me of a boy in love with life, I was referring to the innocence of youth and the freshness of his creativity.”

He shot the production using two digital cameras mounted on the car’s hood, focusing on the driver and the passenger. “Directing from the back seat of the car,” Kiarostami explained, “was like directing for the theater. You have to prepare everything beforehand. You cannot intervene in the middle of the play, but you can whisper to your actors and maybe remind them of what else has to be said, so it is neither a documentary nor a purely fabricated film. Perhaps midway between the two.”

Although the film lacks the visual beauty of the haunting landscapes in his Cannes prize-winning “The Taste of Cherry,” one Italian critic at Thessaloniki thought confining the conversations to the car expressed perfectly the claustrophobia of women’s lives in Iran.

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“Ten” expressed more than enough to vex Iranian censors. “They’re asking me to cut 40% of the film,” Kiarostami said, but he has no intention of doing that. “Perhaps I should rename the film, from ‘Ten’ to ‘Six.’ ” The censors want him to remove the prostitution scene and a scene where a woman in despair over her love life takes off the hejab and reveals her shaved head.

“They also wanted me to cut scenes where the boy talks back to his mother, saying that children should always respect their parents. With this kind of censorship, the film is useless. It makes no sense.” However, Iranian censors can sometimes be unpredictable. “Worse films than ‘Ten’ have finally been shown,” Kiarostami noted with grim humor.

Because all the performers in the film are amateurs, Kiarostami said, “the trick is to give them the freedom to be themselves. Assigning them specific lines could be disastrous. In the mother-son scenes, the spontaneity only emerged because neither of them knew what the other was going to say.”

Maher said he was very comfortable with the approach of the director, who raised two sons of his own. “Mr. Kiarostami mostly told me to forget about the camera. He would give us a small subject and we made it up ourselves. He said there are always little fights between mothers and kids.” As a result of the experience, Amin wants to be an actor when he grows up, “but not a director because it’s more difficult than being an actor.”

Asked how he selected his amateur performers, Kiarostami, a master of elusion, responded, “One by one.” As for why it took him so long to make a film about women, he replied, “Better late than never.”


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