Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ten (2002), Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami is fond of shooting people Ozu-like, back and forth, conversing in vans or SUVs, presumably because there must be something inherently interesting in doing this, or in the conversation or in the characters doing the talking. Then why, I wonder, do I often find myself more interested in the snatches of terrain outside the windows of the vehicle than what is going on inside? Wow, look at how the trees are arrayed on that sandy hill, or look at how the passengers in vehicles pulling up alongside aren't buying into the illusion that this is a film and breaking the forth wall looking straight at the cameras. Ten, as it stands, is the most interesting of the films I've seen by Kiarostami so far, but before you think I'm slowly becoming a convert to the current holder of the cinema's Emperor's New Clothes Award, think again. It is, again, a movie with people talking to each other in a vehicle. There are 10 episodes, with the driver being always the same woman and the passengers alternating in the episodes. The driver is a divorced and re-married mom played by a rather beautiful Iranian woman, Mania Akbari, and it helps that she is because otherwise it would be hard to sit through. This, of course, is the unspoken trope of art-film makers through time eternal -- make whatever you want and put a lovely person in the center of it and at least there's something to look at. Truly though I do find the examination of everyday concerns within the context of a different culture interesting. The conversation and the acting are pretty good -- mostly by nonprofessionals -- especially by the little boy cast as the driver's rebellious adolescent son. The film tries to shed light on the problems of being a woman in Iran, but during the course of things I don't think there's anything stated that we already didn't know, and as usual for Kiarostami the central character seems to be the least interesting and defined, serving more as a sounding board more than anything else. The director sometimes shoots only one character during these dialogue episodes; sometimes cuts back and forth sparingly between both. The passengers, in addition to the son, include a friend who has lost her boyfriend, an old woman who has given away everything for the good of God, a prostitute who doesn't like to be lectured about her lifestyle, and so on. Interestingly, one finds some of the philosophy or statements made by the passengers earlier in the film coming out of the mouth of the driver later. In consoling the friend whose man has left her, we find the driver using some of the same arguments as the prostitute. Family dynamics are explored, away from the home, through conversations between the mother and son. The issues of juggling visitation rights between estranged parents are universal ones, very recognizable. The universality of the issues and the realistic presentation count for something. I think for once Kiarostami has hit on something authentic. On the other hand, I again agree with Roger Ebert that this film wouldn't even have made it past the first entry round of judging had anyone else made it, much less gotten a nomination for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It is shot on videotape, which begs the question: If Kiarostami thought it worth doing, then why not put it on film? I question the artistic judgment of someone whose best or near-best work is deemed only good enough for video while his lamest movies make it to film. So, in the end, what are we left with here: a better-than-average home video or a memorable cinematic experience? The former, I believe. Like Ebert, I still fail to grasp the greatness of Kiarostami. Luckily, I listen to myself and not to the crowd of narrative-hating critics that Ebert rather delightfully, and bravely, calls dilettantes. Grade D+

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