Liberated from a camera crew and all the paraphernalia of 35mm filmmaking, Iranian pacesetter Abbas Kiarostami makes a revolutionary leap forward technically and narratively in his 12th feature film “10” — 10 dazzling and perceptive snapshots of women with which femmes everywhere can identify. Using a small DV camera attached to the dashboard of a car and just two camera setups — closeup of driver and closeup of passenger — he creates a rich, believable emotional world around a young divorced Iranian woman grappling with her anxieties. This courageous, instinctive film reduces all cinematic elements to a minimum in this one-man-show, which the director wrote, produced, shot and edited by himself on the model of last year’s DV docu “ABC Africa,” with an economy that is certain to be widely studied and imitated, particularly in the emerging countries. Sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always engrossing, “10” is a far cry from the static minimalism that passes itself off as avant-garde, offering a new model of filmmaking that reaches deep into human behavior and concerns. Its radical nature will keep many viewers at bay, while the nonstop dialogue will sorely test viewers’ subtitle reading skills. Yet even lacking the wide appeal of his visually expansive films leading up to “The Wind Will Carry Us,” it is an inspired work, marking a milestone departure comparable to his 1990 “CloseUp.”
Kiarostami has never been noted for his female characters, who hug the background in most of his work. Here, surprisingly, five non-pro actresses hold center stage through dialogue and facial expression alone. Most engrossing and complex is the main character (Mania Akbari), introduced in a conversation with her young son Amin (Amin Maher) while she drives him to the swimming pool. Camera remains fixed on his face for 15 minutes as he argues and shouts with his unseen mom. He can’t forgive her for divorcing his father and remarrying a man he treats as a stranger. She loads her own feelings of anger and guilt on him, accusing him of being “full of rage” and like his father. Judging by the way she upsets him, he’s right in calling her a bad mother.
This is the first and longest of 10 scenes, clearly delineated with numbers. In the next long tableau, the young mother is shown behind the wheel of her car, driving a relative who talks about Amin’s hostility and need to live with his father. She’s beautiful and fashionable in her sunglasses and makeup and has a great need to talk. She knows she’s no model hausfrau, as her husband and son wished, but refuses to reform. Instead she drives through the streets of Tehran, picking up female hitchhikers. In one scene she offers a lift to an old lady on her way to pray at a mausoleum and, in a daring nighttime drive that shows to what lengths she’s prepared to go in her search for understanding, she picks up and quizzes an intoxicated prostitute about men, sex and love.
Gradually it becomes clear that what she is so desperately seeking is peace of mind in a society in which women’s rights are consistently trampled, where men are unfaithful and love transient and often illusory. The satisfaction of sexual needs is a puzzle, related to the larger question of whether all male-female relationships are based on commerce.
To two gentle young women with broken hearts, she firmly asserts her own philosophy of living without bonds (she describes her current husband as a “companion and friend”). By pic’s end, she appears to have achieved the inner peace she craves, perhaps by learning to love herself and live for herself, not just in relation to the men in her life.
Kiarostami, who is also a well-known photographer, brings a completely new take to digital cinematography, exploiting its ability to record in small spaces as no one has previously attempted. Akbari and young Amin Maher are unbeatable at improvisation, shot after several weeks’ rehearsal, but the whole non-pro cast is exceptional. Howard Blake’s lyrical song “Walking in the Air” gently closes the film.