Top 10

An interesting experiment in film looks at the life of a woman in Iran's oppressive society.

When we critics get together in our secret mountain fortress and relax after vanquishing Badfilm whe'er it raises its malevolent head, sometimes we raise our enormous brandy snifters and toast the truly fine cinema that we struggle so hard to protect and serve.

And when we do so, we frequently mention The White Balloon, an Iranian film which, we all agree (well, all of us except Michael Medved, whom we secretly believe is working for the other side) is one of the best films of the '90s. That film was written by Abbas Kiarostami, and is a paradigm of what can be done on an extremely limited budget and under Islamic governmental supervision.

Kiarostami went on to write and direct the critically acclaimed Taste of Cherry, among other films, and he returns now with his latest ultra-low-budget venture, 10.

Here, the constraints begin to chafe a little as he puts them so far forward in the film that they become thematic elements: It's as though he were asking what a film about women's experience would look like if it was made with no money and under the Iranian law that no adult women may appear on film near any adult men except close relatives.

Virtually the entirety of 10 is shot with a camera mounted inside a car, pointed at either the driver or passenger. In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are a stationary shot of 10-year-old Amin as he talks to his off-camera mother, who is driving him to a sporting event at a pool.

Luckily, Amin Maher, who plays Amin, is an amazing actor. His performance is so realistic that he makes most American child actors seem like animatronic robots with broken face gears. Still, staring at a kid while he berates his mother for 15 minutes is not my idea of fun cinema. In fact, it's what a lot of people go to the movies to get away from.

Little Amin is mad at his mother for divorcing his father and marrying another man. He goes on about this at length from the passenger seat as his mother argues with him from the driver's seat, off camera. Only at the end of this first of the 10 segments of this film does the camera shift to the mother, a beautiful woman in sunglasses and bright red lipstick. The makeup, and her talk of women's rights, marks her as a bad Muslim and a feminist.

After Amin exits the car, there's a cut, and then the number nine appears, and the next segment begins. Thus follow the 10 segments of the film, which are all between four and 15 minutes long. All feature Amin's mother (she's never named) driving the car and someone sitting in the passenger seat. The car, and the bits of Tehran that can be seen passing by in the windows, make up the entire set of the film. The inclusion of a cinematographer credit seems almost gratuitous, since the camera never moves, merely cutting from a still shot of the driver to the passenger and back.

The only segment where the camera leaves the car is one in which Amin's mother gives a ride to a prostitute. They talk for 10 minutes or so, but the camera never faces away from Amin's mother. We know the prostitute is there only by her voice and constant giggles. She and Amin's mother debate the role of women within and without marriage. Then, the prostitute exits the vehicle, and we see her from behind as she solicits customers in their cars. Other than this brief shot, the entirety of this film is close-ups of people talking or listening.

There is, then, essentially no action in the movie. People laugh, cry, speak, shout and fidget a bit, but they never leave their seats until the final moment that indicates that a scene is over. It's an interesting experiment that blurs the distinction between film and radio. Actually, since the movie is subtitled, it pretty much blurs the distinction between film and newspaper.

Two things keep this from ruining the movie. The first is the performances, especially that of Mania Akbari, who plays Amin's mother. It doesn't hurt that Akbari is stunningly beautiful; if you're going to stare at someone for 90 minutes, they'd better be at least interesting to look at. But what really works for Akbari is the aura of confidence she exudes in talking about her independence, and the authenticity of the emotion she evokes later in the film when she starts to feel the consequences of that independence.

As she picks up hitchhikers and relatives, the recurring theme of attachment to others starts to weigh upon her, and she begins to see her decision to remain unencumbered by emotional bonds as something of a burden in itself. In the end, her sorrow at losing her son comes out with a subtlety that's almost never seen in American films. She doesn't have to weep and proclaim her feelings openly to make them clear. Rather, through her jokes and jibes and casual manner, she evinces a much truer and more natural representation of the complex feelings of a parent whose son has moved away.

With its limited set, 10 is necessarily a short 94 minutes. They go by surprisingly quickly, and the mood is effective. Still, this is not White Balloon or Taste of Cherry, and it gives me the sense that Iranian cinema may have reached the limit of what it can do under strict Islamic rules. I can only hope that great artists like Kiarostami are soon freer to explore their work in a wider variety of styles and situations.

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