In Tehran, A Driver With a Lot To Say - "Ten" Review

By A.O. Scott The New York Times

"Ten" consists of a series of conversations -- the title tells you how many -- that take place between the driver of a car, a middle-class Tehran woman in her 30's (Mania Akbari), and various passengers, including her young son. The director, Abbas Kiarostami, in addition to being perhaps the most internationally admired Iranian filmmaker of the past decade, is also among the world masters of automotive cinema. But while his action-minded colleagues, in Hollywood and elsewhere, view every motor vehicle as a potential fireball, the more contemplative Mr. Kiarostami understands the automobile as a place for reflection, observation and, above all, talk.

The front seat of a car, after all, is a peculiar hybrid of public and private space, offering freedom of movement along with confinement, security in the midst of anxiety and, whether in traffic jams or on long, empty stretches of highway, plenty of time for conversation.

In "A Taste of Cherry," which won Mr. Kiarostami the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, the driver was a middle-aged man winding through a dusty rural landscape and engaging his passengers in dialogues about life, death and the nature of the universe. In "The Wind Will Carry Us," released in the United States in 2000, a lonely engineer hurtled across desolate hillsides in search of a clear signal for his cell phone, his absurd pilgrimage a metaphor for his drift and isolation.

"Ten," in contrast, takes place in the noisy, traffic-choked streets of the Iranian capital, and its heroine is less concerned with metaphysics than with the pressures of daily life. For his part, the director, whose protagonists have most often been children and solitary men, takes up what has become one of the chief preoccupations of younger Iranian filmmakers, namely the condition of women in Iranian society.

But this may be too general, too grandiose a description of a movie whose greatest virtue is its wry, compassionate precision. Ten, which will be shown tomorrow and again on Tuesday at the New York Film Festival, is a work of inspired simplicity. All of the action is recorded by a small digital video camera mounted on the dashboard, which picks up the noise of car horns and engines, as well as glimpses of the city's endless traffic. Serious discussions -- about marriage, religion, family matters and so on -- are interrupted by the mundane details of urban driving: the search for a parking space, the irritating habits of other motorists and the worry about getting lost on the way from one errand or another.

The driver's most frequent passenger is Amin (Amin Maher), her son, and their fractious relationship is the film's dramatic center. The boy is furious about his parents' divorce, and with a funny, heartbreaking mixture of mannish bluster and childish neediness, he assails his mother for being so selfish, and for talking much.

"You always lecture me," he complains. "You have to talk."

"And you only talk to fight," she responds, "like those children full of hate." He mimics her, rolls his eyes, and threatens to throw his school bag out the window. It is hard to tell how much of their fight is scripted and how much is improvised, but the opening scene in particular has the excruciating syncopation of a real argument in which every attempt at conciliation turns into a counter-attack and feelings are trampled in the struggle for the last word.

After the emotional intensity of the movie's beginning, the less charged dialogues that follow are both a relief and a disappointment, as the driver, whose name is never given, commiserates with her sister about the difficulties of working motherhood and listens to a devout old woman recount her woes.

These diffuse, inconclusive exchanges feel true to the random texture of daily life, and they allow the film's theme to develop slowly and organically within the boundaries of its formal artifice, so that by the end you feel that the lives of the characters, and the complicated society they inhabit, have been illuminated.

In her quarrel with Amin, his mother defends the principle of independence, accusing him of wanting her all for himself, and insisting that "a woman has a right to live." Later, in a discourse with a prostitute, she hears her own words thrown back at her and her sense of moral superiority brazenly challenged.

"Ten" is at once so powerful and so matter-of-fact that it is easy to underestimate the work that the actors, especially Ms. Akbari, are doing. Half hidden behind fashionable sunglasses and a white head scarf, she projects an image of tough, unflappable reserve, hinting at the anxieties that lie beneath it but never soliciting our pity. Her performance has about it an air of sly, confident defiance: it may be Mr. Kiarostami's camera, but she's the one behind the wheel.

Originally Published September 28, 2002

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