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!”
And so, using the most rudimentary of techniques to record a seemingly unscripted exchange, Kiarostami announces the theme of 10, at the highest decibel level. This woman demands her freedom and will go on demanding it, even if the effort makes her sound harsh, even if (as often happens in unscripted exchanges) the effect is not entirely happy.
The boy keeps covering his ears, twisting in his seat and nearly whimpering as he cries, “Don’t shout!” And because he’s just a boy, because he still lisps, because the camera for the first dozen minutes shows only him, his plea temporarily outweighs her self-justification. We begin to feel sympathy for the driver–and get a fresh charge of meaning–only at the end of this first episode, when Kiarostami at last cuts to her. That voice on the soundtrack, so self-righteous and insistent, turns out not to have come from a harpy. It belongs to a strikingly elegant young woman, done up in lipstick, chic sunglasses and the loosest white headscarf the law will allow.
Over the course of the next episodes, Kiarostami will contrast this woman with her sister (a more drab and nervous type), a sobbing friend who has been dumped by her husband, a young acquaintance who is uncertain of her boyfriend and is now seeking religious faith. Though wonderfully dense in their particularities, these characters are also mirrors of the driver, who might have become like any of them. At the mysterious emotional core of 10, though, are back-to-back encounters with two passengers who are more remote as possible selves, since they differ markedly from the driver in age and social station. These central characters, who remain all but unseen, are an elderly woman who talks of prayers and pilgrimages and overflowingly fecund families, and a prostitute.
About the elderly woman, I need say only that the driver listens to her with a mixture of curiosity and irony. A chic young modern woman cannot adopt such untutored piety, but neither does she dismiss it (as becomes evident during later rides).
The prostitute makes a far trickier passenger. It’s not just that she gives voice to attitudes that are meant to shock. (She laughingly dismisses the difference between streetwalkers and married women, saying, “We’re the wholesalers, you’re the retailers.”) What makes the prostitute so compelling is that she only gives voice. It’s nighttime when the driver picks her up; the scene outside the car window is dark except for the passing streetlamps and shop windows, and the driver’s face flashes in and out of view. The prostitute cannot be seen at all–which makes her mocking, drawling speech seem as intimate as if it came from inside the driver’s head. What was the driver thinking, anyway, when she picked up this woman? Why won’t she stop now and let her out, as the prostitute keeps requesting?
Here, in what is literally the murkiest passage of 10, Kiarostami opens up desires that are far more unruly than the demand for equal rights before the law. “Pretend I’m a man,” the driver says at one point, ostensibly to encourage conversation–to which the prostitute raucously shoots back, “I’ve never worked that field!” The reverberations of that line ring through later episodes–and so, too, do some of the prostitute’s phrases, which the driver will repeat, though without the corrosive cynicism.
As even this incomplete sketch might hint, Kiarostami builds up a pattern in 10–a mosaic, you might say, in which the relationships between the parts seem to change each time you blink. It’s a mosaic on the subject of freedom–and the most astonishing thing about it, perhaps, is that Kiarostami achieved it by giving up control of the movie.
In an exceptional feat of look-Ma-no-hands filmmaking, Kiarostami fixed digital video cameras to the dashboard of the car, turned them on and then stood at the curb as his set and actors drove away. He was absent during the shooting of every scene in 10; he probably didn’t even know exactly where Akbari would drive. Of course, he must have prepared the performers, and he chose which takes to use afterward; but whatever you see on the screen truly happened before the camera, as it used to happen in the old actualities footage that was cinema at its most basic.
You might even say that 10 is so basic, so radical, that it brings you back to the biomechanics of cinema. Because Kiarostami’s camera is stationary within a traveling car, the image remains still and yet moves. This is, of course, the nature of film: A succession of photographs blurs into apparent motion. The blur is subjective, illusory, directionless–and in 10, it pulses with the longings of women in a real time and place.
What emerges from this minimalist, form-obsessed movie, as if from the body of cinema itself? At its climax, the film contrives to show you what cannot be shown in today’s Iran: the image of a bareheaded woman. That a ruse is involved–a ruse that needn’t be explained in this review–should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Kiarostami’s career. Once again, the director (and nondirector) has lied with beguiling simplicity, and so called up the complicated truth.
While 10 enjoys its US theatrical run, kicking off March 5-18 at Film Forum in New York, moviegoers will have the chance to see another Iranian feature as well, this one written and directed by one of the country’s leading female filmmakers, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Titled Under the Skin of the City, the picture takes us from the thin, crystalline air atop Mount Kiarostami back to the smoggy lowlands of family melodrama, where many audiences find it easier to breathe.
Here is the story of Tuba (Golab Adineh), a tough-minded, middle-aged woman who works in a Teheran textile factory, and her troubled children: Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan), the young man who schemes to immigrate to Japan and make money; Hamideh (Homeira Riazi), the married daughter who flees her abusive husband; Mahboubeh (Baran Kowsari), the teenage daughter who just wants a little fun, and suffers for it; and Ali (Ebraheem Sheibani), the college-age son, whose idealism gets him into political brawls and puts his brother Abbas into a very deep jam.
This set of characters, as conventional as you will find in any movie about the urban working class, is portrayed conventionally–and very well–by a cast of professional actors. In other words, Under the Skin of the City is a normal movie–which in an Iranian context makes it rather unusual. Bani-Etemad resorts to no narrative dodges, no circumlocutions, no sleights of hand in which nonprofessionals play at being themselves. Like her earlier features (unreleased to date in the United States), Under the Skin of the City provides solid, meat-and-potatoes storytelling–even though the Ministry of Guidance, which rejected several versions of the script, would apparently have preferred gruel.
What do Iranian audiences prefer? According to Bani-Etemad, Under the Skin of the City was Iran’s top-grossing film in 2001, with more than 1.2 million admissions. I thought of those figures during the picture’s only “typical” Iranian moment, when a film crew suddenly broke the frame by trying to interview Tuba. “Who do you show these movies to?” she demanded, in a rage. Many skeptics have asked that same question about the work of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Panahi. Bani-Etemad can claim the satisfaction of having asked, and then being able to give a good answer.