- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

The new "10," exclusively at the American Film Institute Theatre in Silver Spring for the next two weeks, should not be confused with Blake Edwards' notoriously popular comedy of the same title, which is approaching a 25th anniversary but isn't quite ready to strike up the band in 2003. The current "10" was completed a year ago by the often static but intriguing and resourceful Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and it seems to be reaching American art houses even before it has played publicly in its country of origin. Evidently, government censors have yet to approve it for exhibition.

One surmises that "10" would be a conversation piece and bone of contention if liberated from censorship constraints. The scenes we watch are paradoxically static: a succession of 10 encounters from the vantage point of a video camera mounted on the dashboard of a passenger car. More often than not, the car is on the move, sometimes pretty rapidly. When the foreground gets monotonous, your eye tends to seek out passing cityscapes in the background. It's agonizing when they are obscured by daylight glare or nocturnal inkiness.

During the first half of the movie, only one subject at a time is observed for the length of a conversation: alternately the passenger and driver. In the last half, Mr. Kiarostami permits himself the conventional cinematic liberty of cutting between the participants.

The driver is a constant: Mania Akbari, an attractive camera subject of a haughty kind. She embodies a seemingly privileged and stylish but also waspish, dissatisfied figure of contemporary femininity. A young divorcee, she spends four of the episodes wrangling with her 10-year-old son, Amin Maher (reportedly her son in real life), who doesn't hide his preference for his father.

We see the father only at a distance, in subsequent encounters in which he and the mother are exchanging the boy from one vehicle to another across a busy street. Amin seems to regard his dad as a scapegoat during divorce and custody proceedings. The mother-son impasse is established with somewhat nerve-wracking and redundant emphasis during the opening sequence. The encores confirm it over the course of perhaps several days. Anyway, there are three daylight cycles and two sets of cruising after dark.

The other passengers appear to be the mother's sister, followed by a quartet of strangers and finally a heartbroken young woman, evidently a close friend. The driver tries to talk her out of being devastated by the collapse of a love affair, offering airy consolation in the vein of "shrug it off and realize that he isn't the only fish in the sea." The episode generates some pathos because this argument falls on deaf ears. The unidentified actress who plays the suffering passenger sustains a believable and impressive crying jag for 10 minutes or so.

The most tendentious pickup is a purported hooker, never seen distinctly during the first nighttime passage. Mr. Kiarostami seems to relish the idea of sowing doubt about the sexuality of this troublemaker, who enjoys mocking the sentiments and apprehensions of conventional women. The driver doesn't qualify as a high-vulnerability target, but the mockery seems to provoke a trace of tears. Something about this cynicism wounds her despite her own cynical defenses.

When she's accentuating the worldly, it's possible to envision Mania Akbari as one of the first in line to produce a Tehran version of Home Box Office's "Real Sex," when and if such an outrage becomes feasible.

The most haunting passenger is an enigma evidently met during a stroll though the Ali Akbar mausoleum, called to Mania's attention by another passenger, an elderly woman whose preoccupations are completely pious. You're not sure what gives with the young specimen, clad demurely in a polka-dot gown. Prayer seems to be on her mind during the first meeting. A repeater like Amin, she turns up again with a different look: skinhead temptress. It seems to be a turn-on of some magnitude for Mania to ogle the scalp beneath her white scarf. There's no way of knowing whether this is kinky or doctrinal. Maybe it's a morale booster for Mania to observe still waters beginning to bubble in Tehran.

Any line of speculation remains futile for cultural outsiders. It is interesting that the actress bears a striking resemblance to photographs of Virginia Woolf. This is the elongated and pensive look that wasn't really tried for Nicole Kidman in "The Hours," although she was fascinating to watch for other reasons. Could it be that all the really dead-on Virginia Woolf look-alikes are now in Tehran?

What should we make of Mr. Kiarostami's social sketchbook? Intimations and implications that might be crystal clear to knowing people in Tehran are bound to seem presumptuous here. Nevertheless, there's adequate cause to suspect that the filmmaker is using the mobility of Mania's car for thematic shorthand. The means of transportation allows him to suggest a turbulent social backdrop, contradicted in a deliberate way by keeping us cooped up inside the car for feature length.

It can't be all that far-fetched to conclude that we're watching a veiled impression of how basic drives are being stifled by a particular society. At the same time, we're reminded that the drives persist in smoldering and surfacing. The most banal but also eloquent paraphrase of how difficult it is to reconcile obligation and desire is entrusted to the sister: "It's not easy, but you have to try."


TITLE: "10"

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, with occasional candid dialogue and allusions to prostitution, marital conflict and parent-child estrangement)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami. In Farsi with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes


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