Directed by Abbas Kiarostami. Iran/France. 2002.

Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann

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Several well-known film titles are simply a number, or a slight variation thereon. There are the regular critics’ “top ten” favourites and 2001 (which strictly speaking is a year, and in any event is not the full title), and Le Million, a critics’ favourite of half a century ago. More recently there are the superlative A One and a Two (the Chinese title means literally “One One”), and the supernatural thriller Se7en.  To this august company must now be added 10 (2002), not the forgettable (and probably forgotten) Blake Edwards comedy from some years back but an astonishing new film from Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, which surely ranks with Close-up (1989) as his finest masterpiece.

Kiarostami is often compared with Godard as a director who is forever extending the boundaries of cinema, but his films are far more accessible than most of Godard’s.  His experiments with combining fiction and documentary are invariably fascinating: in Close-up he reconstructs an actual court-case using the original participants, and includes sequences from the trial itself; in And Life Goes On (1992) he visits the earthquake-devastated area where he had filmed Where is my Friend’s House? (1988); in Through the Olive Trees (1994) he presents a supposed documentary about the filming of And Life Goes On; and in A Taste of Cherry (1997) he adds a concluding scene (omitted from the video version) showing the camera crew packing up to go home.

The popular image of a Kiarostami film is of a car journey either around Tehran or in the stunning countryside some way to the north.  10 takes this to extremes; the entire film takes place inside a car (not a taxi, as some reviews have stated) being driven around the capital by a beautiful and obviously well-off woman (Mania Akbari).  In a succession of 10 episodes, numbered in reverse from 10 to 1, the woman has conversations with several people, including her young son Amin (4 times), a friend who is in the process of losing her boyfriend (3 times), her sister, an old woman, and a prostitute. The digital camera is fixed to the bonnet and trained throughout on just one of the characters (driver or passenger). There is clearly no back-projection and, as far as one can tell, the director and any other crew are quite absent during the filming. 

Amin in 10. All Rights Reserved.The conversations (or, when her son is the passenger, the arguments) gradually build up for us a picture not just of this individual woman, who several times states that “you must love yourself before you can love anyone else”, but of the situation of Iranian women today. This is a new departure for Kiarostami though not for some other Iranian directors. We learn, for example, that a woman can get a divorce by falsely accusing her husband of drug abuse. We are reminded of the strict rules regarding the wearing of the veil, particularly in a taboo-breaking scene where the friend removes hers to reveal a shaven head (strictly illegal, apparently, thus raising the question of how it ever got past the censors).

10 was edited down from an original 23 hours of footage to its 93 minutes’ running time, and was apparently carefully scripted. It is astonishing, therefore, how such spontaneous performances were obtained, particularly from the young boy who, with his American-style T-shirts and aggressively chauvinistic attitude, seems just like any Western child accusing his mother of being a bad mother and attacking her for leaving the father with whom he has chosen to live and for marrying a man he doesn’t like. Most of the performers were, apparently, ordinary people chosen after talking about their lives. It would be fascinating to know just what degree of improvisation there was, not least in view of the several occasions of altercations with other road-users.

Like such films as Tokyo Story and A One and a Two, what makes 10 so great is its combination of being specific to the society where it is set and its universality. We can imagine it taking place anywhere in the world, to the extent that we become so involved as to be almost unaware of reading the subtitles.

Without a big publicity budget to support it, 10 has suffered the usual fate of out-of-the-mainstream subtitled films of being shown on a grand total of 2 screens throughout the UK on its release, one in London and one in Edinburgh. However much it is banging one’s head against a brick wall, I shall continue to appeal to distributors to give more opportunity to brilliantly original and truthful films such as this, and to regular young moviegoers to allow themselves, just occasionally, to go and see them instead of confining themselves to the so-called “big” film of the week, which is guaranteed to be forgotten long before 10.

Alan Pavelin

"In all my films, there are shots where the emotional impact goes beyond direction, triumphing over it, and the emotion becomes more powerful than cinema itself."
Abbas Kiarostami 

Ten conversations, four passengers, two digital cameras using two camera angles, one angry young boy, one agitated mother, and one great film director. That is the essence of the remarkable new film, Ten, by acclaimed Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami. Using only two small video cameras strapped to the dashboard of a car to eavesdrop on a series of semi-improvised conversations, Ten is a highly original film that has an experimental feel to it, yet manages to convey a searing emotional honesty. 

The opening fifteen-minute exchange, between a divorced mother ((Mania Akbari) and her son Amin (Amin Maher) as she drives him to a swimming pool, is amazing in its intensity. I don't think I've ever seen any sequence in a film quite like it. Amin urges his mother to allow him to live with his father rather than his stepfather. The camera does not leave the boy, who expresses emotions seemingly beyond his age, articulating anger, frustration, and self-pity with sharp intelligence and humor. His mother is deeply unhappy about her relationship with Amin, but stubbornly refuses to bend to his desires. 

The opening sequence reaches such an emotional peak that the remaining conversations seem almost anti-climactic. Other conversations examine the emotional lives and attitudes of the driver and her passengers. These include an old woman who visits the local mausoleum three times a day, and tries to persuade Akbari to go there and pray with her. Another depicts Akbari's sister, who discusses the mother's relationship with her son and new husband. In one of the best sequences, a laughing prostitute gets into the car thinking the driver is a man and asserts how women cling to men as their only source of strength. She claims that marriage and prostitution are different facets of the same business - the married woman sells sex wholesale, the prostitute retail. 

Indeed, a recurring theme in the film is that, in Iran today, men dominate the society and thwart women's desire for emancipation. All of these conversations expound diverse opinions about women in Iran and look at issues from a woman's point of view. The camera is trained almost exclusively on one of the participants and does not shift back and forth, regardless of whom is talking. The only sound and light emanate from the natural street environment, which can be very dark, as in the nighttime vignette with the prostitute. In the process of these conversations, some new things about Iranian society are revealed - for example, that a woman can get a divorce by falsely accusing her husband of drug abuse. Kiarostami reminds us of the restrictions on wearing the veil, particularly in a scene where the friend removes her veil to expose her shaven head, something that must have caused the censors to scratch theirs. 

As the film moves toward its conclusion, Amin's mother seems to acquire an inner strength that allows her to let events unfold more naturally. She offers advice to two other women who have experienced disappointment in their relationships, and acknowledges that winning and losing are but two sides of the same coin. Most importantly, Akbari states many times that “you must love yourself before you can love anyone else.” This leads to another drive with Amin, during which the mother is more able to just be with her son without having to discuss plans or expectations. I found Ten, though not always easy to be with, a deeply humanistic work and an extremely rewarding experience. 

Howard Schumann

Web References

Lalit Rao's site that looks at serious filmmakers is dedicated to Abbas Kiarostami:


Iranianmovies.com contains useful background information about Abbas Kiarostami:


A more critical review of 10 can be found at:

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