by Daniel Gorman Retrospective

Ten | Abbas Kiarostami

September 25, 2011

In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Abbas Kiarostami recited a verse from the poet Rumi: “You are my polo ball, running before the stick of my command. I am always running after you, though it is I who make you move.” It’s easy to see why Kiarostami would be attracted to such a sentiment; his own directorial methods illustrate precisely such a poetic contradiction. The dialectic between documentary realism and the mediating hand of the filmmaker is the constant organizing factor in Kiarostami’s oeuvre, and Ten represents the most extreme illustration of each. In the film, Mania Akbari is Driver, a young, divorced and re-married woman who transports various people in her car throughout the numbered segments. Kiarostami captures each segment with two video cameras mounted on either side of the car’s dashboard, showing us only the driver or her passenger at any given moment.

Totally eschewing any kind of traditional shot-counter-shot, Kiarostami radically limits his own options as a director, restricting camera movement and placement. But Ten‘s rigid formalism never debases itself with the schematic ‘rules’ that limit some structuralist films. The segments here are not of a uniform length (the first, labeled “#10” and featuring Mania’s son, is by far the longest), and careful viewing reveals more depths than a cursory description might otherwise suggest. There are more than a few hidden edits, noticeable only when the background outside of the traveling car suddenly changes. And in one stunning segment, the camera actually moves outside of the car (for the first and only time during the feature) to linger on a woman receding into the horizon.

Women have always been a kind of structuring absence in Kiarostami’s films, so it’s telling that his most severe feature dives headlong into the life of the modern female. The first segment lays out thematic and political concerns in the way it depicts Mania’s young son, who is verbally abusive, churlish and petulant—not much of a stretch to suggest he at least partially represents the reigning Iranian patriarchy. Conversely, Mania is resolutely contemporary, sporting Kiarostami’s trademark dark glasses and willing to speak openly to her son about her emotional needs, why she divorced his father and the vagaries of the Iranian political system that forced her to lie in order to do so (the son is angry that she calls his father a drug addict, which is one of only two ways a woman can legally divorce). That Mania is already remarried is a constant source of consternation for her son.

Ten might not be as immediately engaging as previous Kiarostami features, but it’s a work with real rewards, ushering a provocative experimental period in Kiarostami’s filmography.

The sole reference point for our location throughout Ten, this one repeated automobile interior, becomes a potent metaphor for the characters residing within. Confined to this mechanical marvel they are simultaneously free to travel anywhere while in effect going nowhere. It’s an intriguing contradiction, and the political implications aren’t lost on Kiarostami: Each of the passengers—the son, who appears three times; a friend of Mania’s; Mania’s sister; a prostitute; and travelers to and from a shrine—are given a kind of stoic individualism. The severity of Kiarostami’s aesthetic focuses attention on these people, and a combination of duration and blunt conversation allows us to learn about each in a way quite unlike a traditional narrative.

A word about what I’ve called the film’s “severe” aesthetic: it’s severe only in so much as Kiarostami refuses to supply the normal pleasures one associates with Hollywood films. The director’s tautology is rigid enough for Roger Ebert to trot out the old anti-modernist complaint, at least several decades old at this point, that “anyone could have made it.” But, as Kiarostami himself stated at this film’s 2002 Cannes premier: “If anyone were to ask me what I did as a director on the film, I’d say, ‘Nothing and yet if I didn’t exist, this film wouldn’t have existed.’” Ten might not be as immediately engaging as previous Kiarostami features, but it’s a work with real rewards, ushering a provocative experimental period in Kiarostami’s filmography.

One final note: The stretch of features to which Ten belongs—which includes Five Dedicated to Ozu, 10 on Ten, and which culminated with the magisterial Shirin—has been as overlooked as Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Dziga Vertov’ period, another internationally renowned filmmaker who angered critics by not continuing to make films that they were already comfortable with. Despite a lack of critical attention, the fact that all of Kiarostami’s most recent features are available on DVD is at least a step in the right direction.

Part of The Self-Reflexive Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami