Abbas Kiarostami, who was born in 1940, has since the early 1990s become one of the darlings of Western film criticism and the recipient of extravagant and undeserved praise. This puts me on the side of Roger Ebert and in opposition to Kiarostami’s fanatical postmodernist admirers. In order to consider any film by Kiarostami, one first has to confront his auteur status and ponder why he is so loved by the intellectual film critic elite. Certainly his directorial style is extremely minimalist – he is the Kazimir Malevich of filmmaking. Operating with a minimum of camera setups, his films mostly consist of a few extremely long single-shot takes of someone talking about his or her personal situation. The actors appear to be authentic, non-professional individuals drawn from real Iranian society and discussing their own personal circumstances. As such, watching a Kiarostami film is somewhat akin to watching a cinema verite documentary, rather than a feature film. There appears to be a flamboyantly self-conscious attempt to assert that the viewer is not being “manipulated” by traditional filmmaking narrative techniques. This may make Kiarostami attractive to postmodernist intellectuals who wish to transcend the boundaries of traditional narrative, but by eschewing most traditional film narrative, Kiarostami also abandons much of what is attractive about cinema. There are other intellectual factors that probably account for some of his popularity. The fact that he is Iranian is certainly significant, because the Western public is fascinated about how ordinary people can live in what appears to be such a restrictive society. In addition, Kiarostomai’s films, like those of other Iranian filmmakers of his generation, often feature women and issues associated with being a woman in Iran. The point is that Kiarostami’s films must be viewed from an intellectual perspective in order to be appreciated, and this can seem to be somewhat paradoxical in view of his apparent attempt at “direct” (hence, by implication, more “authentic”) filmmaking.
10 (Ten) is perhaps the quintessential Kiarostami film, because it has taken his minimalist tendencies to an extreme. It is set entirely inside an automobile and has only two camera setups: one directed towards the driver and the other directed towards the passenger in the front seat. The film comprises ten dialogues between a young nameless woman and various people, mostly other women, in her life. Thus the film is exclusively a set of medium close-ups, and this gives the film a certain spare intensity. Kiarostami, himself, was not even present when the camera shots were taken, thereby maximising his direct cinema credentials – his physical absence thereby presumably shielding him from the charge that he could manipulate (and thereby make artificial) the performances. Instead, he set his amateur actors, driver and passengers, off into the Tehran traffic with the camera running. After collecting 23 hours of footage, he selected what he wanted in order to produce a 90-minute film.
The driver’s conversational partners are her approximately 10-year-old son, her sister, another woman friend, and three strangers to whom she has offered a lift: an old woman, a younger single woman, and a prostitute. All of the discussions touch on the roles and concerns that women have in Iranian life. The prostitute is not shown at all in the film; we only see the driver’s side of that conversation. Since the prostitute’s comments about her lifestyle are highly provocative for the current Iranian regime, one wonders if her invisibility was maintained in order to protect the “actress” from possible retaliation on the part of fanatics after the film was released.
The initial conversation, which is the longest one, is with her son, and this one is perhaps most crucial to whatever meaning the film may have. In the conversation we learn that the parents have divorced and that the son is highly critical of his mother for leaving his father in order to build an independent life for herself. Thus the mother is established as an “independent” woman, a provocative and difficult role in Iran.
But however a film may appear to abandon narrative, the film must still have an interesting narrative that can be mentally constructed by the viewer in order to be successful. 10 does have something of a slim, implicit narrative, and it is here that the film manages to appeal. The women in the film are all somewhat cut off from avenues by which they can gain fulfilment. The driver, in particular, wants to have a meaningful relationship with her son, but their continual arguments throughout the film reveal a huge gap in their views of the world: the son’s expectations of the role his mother should play are in stark contrast to her own views that people should be accepted as meaningful individuals and not just role-players. She stubbornly sticks to her principles throughout the film, but the final dialogues (with her lovelorn friend, with another woman passenger whose fiancé has abandoned her, and with her son) all exhibit failure. The final dialogue with the son has an air of finality and defeat, and the woman driver, though still determined, for the first time displays a hint of hopelessness. The narrative, such as it is, is all downhill and one of despair, not of hope.
Certainly Kiarostami should rank considerably below other leading Iranian filmmakers Panahi, Merhjui, and Majidi, but there is something in his films that does seep through. If he is over-praised and probably appreciated for the wrong reasons, he must not be entirely overlooked, and 10, while less successful than his Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Aeyton, 1994), is still worth seeing.