Ten finds Kiarostami carrying out one of his boldest ventures yet.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten opens with a long scene of a young boy in a car’s front passenger seat, capturing his mounting rage at his mother, who’s heard speaking but excluded from the tight, unevenly framed composition. The shot itself is static, and yet the boy is anything but still, itching against his seatbelt as if in conscious rebellion of the close-bordered nature of the image in which he’s contained, squirming and sputtering his way through a preadolescent tirade. He’s furious at his mother for a variety of trivial non-issues, all of them cover for a lingering displeasure at her recent divorce of his beloved father, with whom she now shares custody. Eventually, the boy decides that he’s had enough, storming out of the car and stomping away down the sidewalk.
This little portrait, the first movement of the ten scenes that give the film its title, sums up everything that’s great about this strange, often mystifying movie. Zoning in on the center of a conflict, it delivers a bit of everyday drama that’s impossible to look away from, a display that uniquely combines raw emotion, unaffected naturalism and low stakes, while offering no stylistic reprieve from the reality it documents. Yet although the boy’s performance is magnetic, it also represents the exact kind of flashy, plot-focused storytelling from which the film attempts to escape. One of many highlights from a long run of experimental exercises, Ten carves out the usual space for the dazzling intersection of fiction and reality, but is ultimately more about what’s been left out of this approach, a transitional work which finds the director exploring new narrative venues.
The running conceit of a car as a compressed theatrical site and multi-use formal fulcrum remains, but the meaning of this location changes. Kiarostami’s previous peripatetic movies were about men, and generally ones with a high level of autonomy or privilege. Often squished into tight spots, their position in the driver’s seat is both literal and metaphoric, indicating a measure of mobility that’s threatened by other constricting factors. Here, for the first time, the protagonist is a woman, a harried single mother for whom the automobile carries out the same general function, granting her a wide range of movement while also keeping her within a fixed space, physically delimiting the social barriers which govern her life in Iran.
In keeping with the spartan construction of the film—Kiarostami’s first to secure digital video cameras to the windshield facing in—the main character is confined to the driver’s seat. After the first unbroken shot, Ten switches perspective from her son to her, as she drives alone for a while, her words directed at other drivers and people outside the car. A taxi driver whose services are offered exclusively to women, she handles a clientele that ranges from strangers as diverse as a devout older woman, a disaffected young bride and a prostitute, to her own sister.
Kiarostami uses this structure, in which the woman is on the receiving end of generally private information dispensed in confidence by other women, as an occasion to tell stories that might traditionally remain under wraps. Yet while the focus is largely female, it’s telling that although her son has a name (Amin, the same as the actor playing him), the woman (played by Mania Akbari) is known only as “The Driver.” Akbari is, tellingly, a fellow filmmaker, and here plays a semi-fictional character who, like the directorial stand-in from Life, and Nothing More, functions mostly as a conduit for information passed along by others. Where that movie chronicled an outpouring of humanity in response to a massive natural disaster, here the damage is less obvious, arrayed around the obscured emotional toll of a class whose troubles are mostly kept to themselves, their mandated head coverings a symbolic partner to a broader program of institutionalized silence.
The Driver, meanwhile, remains on the periphery, with a backstory glimpsed only through her reactions to those of others, and the repeated fulminations of her strident son. This fits in with the film’s use of self-enforced limitations, signified by the unmoving camera, stifling environs and strict close-ups-only setup. As men and boys roam freely, she leaves the car only twice, both times to pick up baked goods, a further nod to a traditional role abandoned in favor of a more modern one. After attempting to convey a more textured depiction of Uganda in ABC Africa, delving past a clichéd, boilerplate understanding of some monolithic African experience, Kiarostami attempts the same for the world of Iranian women, a sub rosa milieu that traditionally only airs its opinions behind closed doors.
The car, and the footage captured within it, allows for a lightly fictionalized extrapolation of that internal space, a sort of mobile salon in which a woman provides a sympathetic ear for the concerns of others like her. Moving in conjunction with the barely-seen cityscape outside the windows, these scenes play out like snatches of chamber drama, their clipped edges further cultivating the conception of a hidden world brought to light. With its overt feminist focus, Ten represents a declaration of intent that would later segue into Shirin, which condensed this approach down to a wordless opera of facial expressions, a purely reactive exhibition offered without any additional distractions. Yet, as in The Report, in which the woman’s conflict with her husband is gradually shoved to the margins of the story, there’s always a tug of war here, the female sphere never fully separate from the male-dominated culture in which it operates.
This is most clearly typified by her son Amin, who appears in three of the segments, always as a destabilizing force, tugging attention away from the driver’s balanced interactions with other passengers and back to his own shrill gripes. Aside from a few improvisatory variations, his scenes are fittingly always the same, a fact which further elucidates both the film’s formal trappings and the lines of routine stress and comfort which define the pair’s love-hate relationship. At 10 years old, he’s already internalized the aggressive stance of a macho culture, a posture he exhibits through a practiced petulance familiar to anyone who’s ever been a self-involved ingrate, berating his overtaxed mother for some vaguely defined sin of omission. The most privileged character in a story drawing across differing degrees of privilege, he freely indulges in his ability to treat someone like a punching bag, knowing they have no choice but to love you unconditionally in response.
His father, meanwhile, is only heard from outside the car, a totally remote presence who nonetheless exercises a pervasive influence. Each time the boy arrives, he’s whisked into the vehicle on a tide of simmering bad feelings, clearly a product of his beloved dad’s disdain for his estranged wife. In moments where the Driver and her son connect, as when Amin mocks his father’s habit of clandestine pornography watching, there’s a suggestion of balance. Yet even here, it’s worth remembering that the boy is acting in adherence to a larger masculine force, the overarching religious authority which has deemed such behavior weak and unmanly. Always subtle to the point of near-obscurity, Ten finds Kiarostami carrying out one of his boldest ventures yet. Through nothing more than the quiet spectacle of offhand conversation, he elucidates an entire network of social roles and personal relationships, their complex joys and the attendant stresses bearing down upon them, all within the cramped confines of a swiftly moving taxi.