Active Ingredients: Natural script; Keen, understated commentary
Side Effects: Flat, static style
Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly understated Ten derives an emotional impact from the simplicity of its conceit, without ever feeling maudlin or cheaply sentimental. The film is composed of ten segments, each documenting a car ride and a conversation between a young female driver and her passengers. Austerely shot, often in long, unbroken takes, each segment explores the complex psychology of women in modern-day Iran. Kiarostami’s minimalist, low-fi aesthetic allows the viewer to register small changes that flicker in and out of the characters’ faces and forces intimacy. While the tactic benefits the film, it does not feel an essential component to its power.
Miraculously, this very talky film never feels obviously scripted. Kiarostami has a remarkable ear for the ebbs and flows of natural conversations. He knows that people talk in circles not straight lines, just as the driver circles aimlessly and continually, much to the chagrin of her passengers. Consequently, the heart of each dialogue is uncovered only after false starts, preambles, tangents and diversions. The inner lives of the characters, their histories and relationships emerge so naturally that the sophistication of its construction passes unnoticed. It’s as if we know these characters and simply ride alongside them.
The characters talk around the ideas of love, loss and submission in Iranian society, but lofty “themes” such as these never get in the way of real, grounded dialogue. Gradually, over the course of the film and with the viewpoint of each passenger, a clear and nuanced portrait of a society emerges in which women must submit to men. Yet rather than stop at this simple, surface-level societal critique, Kiarostami digs deeper to uncover the psychological effects of submission. The women in the film struggle emotionally, coming to grips with the realization that they can never truly define their own identities.
Like 2010’s I Am Love, this film explores feminine duty and the perceived impossibility of a woman living for herself. In both Iran and the highly patriarchal world of high-society Milan, women are expected to surrender their individualities wholly to their families. Ten’s protagonist believes she knows the secret. “You must first love yourself,” she councils her friends, yet she cannot take her own advice to heart. We come to understand the driver as a quietly tortured woman: guilt weighs heavy on her mind and heart. Her young son calls her selfish; she asks a prostitute if she thinks about guilt and sin; an old woman shames her into praying more; and her sister and friend struggle to find love, while the driver deals with the responsibility of her own divorce, a fact her society cannot forgive. How can she love herself if she can’t forgive herself?