2002, 89 Min., Iranian, Budget: N/A
The set-up for Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” is simple enough. Two digital cameras are fixed to an Iranian taxicab. One is pointed toward the driver’s seat, the other toward the passenger’s. The film is broken up into ten vignettes, depicting a female cab driver taking various people to various places. We see a few passengers more than once. The other “star” of the film is the driver’s adolescent “son.” He appears four of the ten times. As they (really) drive around Iran, the film blurs between fact and fiction and, astonishingly, the life of a modern Iranian woman is unearthed...
This film is a visual experiment more than a traditional movie. To the cynical viewer, it may be difficult to move beyond this fact. With most cinematic “experiments,” intellectualism tends to linger like olive oil above a lake of vinegar, which academically, I can agree is counterintuitive to film’s main goal: affecting us emotionally. But this experiment, for me, is a powerful success. “Ten” is able to find an overlap between the intellectual and the emotional, using its “docudrama” format to make it feel viscerally real while structuring it just enough to make salient points about a culture foreign to most of us in the West. Here’s how it works: director Kiarostami collected a group of non-actors (people for whom “acting” is not their profession), discussed general premises and ideas and then let them really drive around Iran, improvising most of their dialogue. An argument can be made that this is a cop-out approach for a film director, but given the emotional rawness of what was captured from those two low-quality cameras, “Ten” is a surprisingly fascinating and thrilling experience, if not an all-together tragic one. I equate it to Alexander Fleming accidentally discovering penicillin. It wasn’t so much the method as it was the genius in knowing what to look for.
Many of my personal preconceived notions about this culture were disproved, while many of them were unfortunately confirmed. For instance, it’s true that in order to get a legal divorce, an Iranian woman must tell the courts that her husband’s on drugs or that she’s been physically abused, even if she hasn’t been. This troubling fact is the core of the first “vignette.” The Driver’s son shouts at her for dishonoring his father with a vitriol that’s arresting and disturbing. He only sees her as a liar, not a woman bound by the trappings of family, culture, religion and the expectations that come with those mighty obstacles. He holds zero sympathy for her situation, in fact, he is enraged and disgusted by her... This is a bold interpretation and I’m not sure I’m qualified to make it, but I feel it’s worth addressing. We can see in this young boy (no older than ten) the man he will eventually grow into. Perhaps, the filmmaker is suggesting that men of this culture never grow beyond that angry little boy, so certain of the woman’s place in their society. This is a generalization and surely reductive regarding the men of Iran. After all, Kiarostami is Iranian and he certainly seems to be more enlightened. But the thought occurred to me.
Part of me thinks I was so transfixed by this movie because I am an outsider. I’m not sure if you’re a woman in Iran that “Ten” is saying anything particularly sophisticated about Iranian culture, but as a person who is admittedly uneducated in the subtleties of that society, I felt like I was peering through a keyhole, into someone’s home during one of their most private moments. This feeling alone justified the movie’s unorthodox “style.” There’s no craftsmanship or cinematography to speak of -- in fact, the language of cinema seemed to be left out entirely, save for editing technique. There must have been hours and hours of footage. Selecting which moments to show and whittling this visual experiment down to 90 minutes reveals its own kind of artistry. You can call it simplistic, minimalist, repetitive or even boring, but from the opening shots, I was captivated. The “stunt” aspect of the movie was consistently overpowered by the conversations happening between the characters. We meet the Driver’s sister, we see an old widow on her way to pray, we meet a prostitute who risks much by engaging in that particular profession (Iran isn’t quite as strict as most westerners would assume, however). Amin, the driver’s son, appears less irate at times than others. But you can always feel the contempt he holds for his mother. This taxi cab is a microcosm of Iran. Not the most impenetrable metaphor, but a potent one.
Speaking of the word “impenetrable,” that’s the word Roger Ebert used to describe Abbas Kiarostami’s work in his Two-Star review of “Ten.” He simply didn’t connect to the director’s movies, which is understandable, and perhaps a matter of taste, but I tend to think he was more annoyed by the unconventional, minimalist style of “Ten” than he was befuddled by it. I believe he saw it as experimentation for the sake of experimentation. Perhaps he was better versed in a growing trend in Iranian cinema, one where minimalism was becoming the norm and therefore losing its poignancy. He discussed in his review how Iranian films with traditional structures and narratives were all but ignored at Cannes because they somehow betrayed this idea that in order for Iran to be “relevant” in cinema, they had to subvert all cinematic convention. And I understand resenting when a good idea becomes a gimmick. It can cloud your objectivity when looking at a film straight-on -- the way I am attempting to look at “Ten.” Ebert wisely pointed out that linear storytelling has worked for centuries, grabbing us and helping us to empathize with characters. I agree that turning our back on the fundamentals of cinema for the sake of “shaking things up” is the wrong approach, but sometimes doing something first helps differentiate between gimmickry and the authentic striving to be something new. Imagine the success of a film like Pink Flamingos for a moment. On its own two feet, it’s a shoddily put-together, foul, pornographic disaster, but because it was the first of its kind, there is a revolutionary quality to it that has captivated audiences since the late nineteen seventies. All the films Pink Flamingos has inspired, however, have been forgotten entirely. Few things are as powerful as an “original.”
I’ve heard people ask if Iranian cinema is the most relevant cinema today. I’m not sure. Relevant is a big word, but I’m a believer that cinema as an art form is still our most relevant art, due to its intense communicative power, and that “Ten” is a formidable example to fortify that sentiment... Maybe Ebert had seen one too many minimalist Iranian films, and therefore “Ten” felt like a gimmick. But to me, the simplistic “style” allowed the words to ring louder above any cinematic trick or device. I saw human beings not unlike myself or those I love. The differences between our cultures melted away. I was the third passenger in that taxicab. It makes you ask the bigger question, what is cinema, exactly? It is sets and costumes? Is it fancy camerawork? Is is screenplays and three-act structures?
“Ten” was “cinema” is the most important way. It connected me to a different time and place and kickstarted the empathy-machine inside my heart and brain. I saw a woman calling out to be heard and I was prepared to listen.