A few years ago, when moviegoers in this country were just beginning to learn about Abbas Kiarostami, I heard a crowd of New Yorkers berate him for having put a snatch of Vivaldi onto a soundtrack. These audience members had paid for an Iranian experience, and they damn well wanted the music to go with with it. Kiarostami, puzzled by their complaint, blinked impatiently behind his tinted glasses. “But Vivaldi’s music,” he finally said, “is like the sun. It belongs to everybody.”
In the conviction that Kiarostami, too, belongs to everyone, I will introduce his most recent film, 10, by recalling a bit of New York City lore.
One night in 1950, the story goes, a hanger-on came into the Cedar Tavern and sat down at the bar beside Franz Kline. “I have just seen the worst show ever,” the man announced happily. “Barnett Newman, at Betty Parsons. Nothing’s there–nothing at all!”
“The gallery’s empty?” Kline asked.
“There’s one painting, and it’s nothing.”
“How about that?” Kline mused. “Barney’s showing just one painting.”
“I mean, there’s a bunch of paintings, but they’re all the same. Just one color.”
“All the paintings are the same color?”
“No, this one is red, that one is blue, the other—-”
“Ah,” Kline said. “Solid colors.”
“Yes, except for this ridiculous stripe.”
“A stripe, too? What kind of stripe?”
“Just the same damn stripe everywhere. In the middle, over to one side, over to the other.”
“So it moves, this stripe. Just one to a painting.”
“One, two. Who cares? All Newman did was make stripes, straight up and down.”
“Same height every time, I guess.”
“Well, no. They run top to bottom, and the paintings are different sizes.”
Kline sipped his beer. “Different sizes, different colors, different places where the stripes run? I dunno,” he said. “Sounds pretty complicated to me.”
Which is to say that Kiarostami’s 10 is nothing–absolutely nothing, except for scenes of an unnamed woman (played by Mania Akbari) driving around Teheran in a car. She makes ten trips in the course of the film, each time conversing with a single passenger. Sometimes the camera is fixed on her, sometimes on the passenger; and sometimes Kiarostami cuts back and forth between the two. The episodes vary in length; the routes take the car speeding along highways or nosing through congested streets; the time shifts between day and night. Some of the passengers ride only once; others show up in multiple episodes. Costumes change. Lines of dialogue echo between one segment and another. It’s pretty complicated.
And like a Barnett Newman canvas, it’s also supersaturated with meaning. Consider the first episode, which introduces the driver’s son: a round-faced, jug-eared boy on the verge of puberty, with bowl-cut hair, a Western logo T-shirt and the last traces of a childhood lisp. No sooner has he pitched himself into the passenger seat than he and his mother are yelling. He hates her for having divorced and remarried; he hates his stepfather; he hates the lie his mother told, when she said his father was a drug addict.
But she had to lie, the mother screams back. It was the only way to get a divorce. “A woman has no rights in this society! I was like a zombie!”