Road Worriers

Within the simplest of formats, Ten presents a compelling look at female concerns

Call it Dashboard Confessions. The latest film from celebrated Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us, A Taste of Cherry) takes place almost entirely in the front seat of an automobile that is wending its way through the busy streets of Tehran. At the wheel is a stylish, educated woman in her late 30s (Mania Akbari, who, like all the performers in the film, had never acted before). The story, such as it is, occurs over several days and consists of 10 one-on-one conversations that the driver has with various passengers she picks up in her travels. These include the woman's 10-year-old son, her sister, a female friend, and several hitchhikers, one of whom is a prostitute. Taken together, the conversations present a picture of what life is like for women in modern-day Iran.

The film gets off to a rousing start when the driver's son, Amin (Akbari's real-life son, Amin Maher), climbs into the passenger seat and immediately butts heads with his mother. Still angry with her for divorcing his father and marrying somebody else, Amin accuses her of being selfish and overbearing. "You lecture me all the time," he protests, covering his ears with his hands and singing loudly to drown out her voice. "I won't listen to you." It is clear they have had this same argument many times before.

Despite her son's anger and frustration -- and her own guilty feelings -- the woman seems intent on making the boy understand why she left his father. "I felt stagnant. I had to run away. Now I feel fulfilled." It is not something the child wants to hear (or is even capable of comprehending), but it suggests the woman's deep need to justify her actions and attitudes. Before Amin exits the car, he exacts a promise that he can go live with his father.

Drive My Car: Mania Akbari is someone with whom 
Western audiences can easily identify.
Drive My Car: Mania Akbari is someone with whom Western audiences can easily identify.

Succeeding conversations provide further evidence of the pressures and anxieties that confront Iranian women. In many ways, of course, the concerns are not all that different from the ones that plague women everywhere: how to balance work and family, how to achieve a sense of self-worth, the desire for recognition and respect in a patriarchal society. The actors, all nonprofessionals, improvised their own dialogue. The result, a cross between fiction and documentary, is far more captivating than a series of talking heads might suggest.

The three separate conversations the woman has with her son constitute the dramatic heart of the film. The cantankerous but utterly adorable Amin barely tolerates his mother, and she appears to deflate a little bit more each time she sees him. Her confidence seems shaken, as if she is wondering whether she has made too great a sacrifice. It is a dilemma facing working and/or independent-minded women around the world. Perhaps there's no satisfactory answer or acceptable compromise that can be made.

Kiarostami is less interested in drawing conclusions, however, than in allowing these women a voice. He does so by positioning two video cameras on the dashboard of the car and recording both the driver and the passenger. He doesn't necessarily cut back and forth; in fact, for the opening scene the camera remains on Amin the entire time. It isn't until the boy gets out of the car that we cut to the mother and find an extremely sophisticated and attractive woman, not at all what the viewer was expecting. Although it may not have been Kiarostami's intention, she's someone with whom Western audiences can easily identify.

This effect may have been prescient, given that Iranian censors have refused to approve Ten's release inside Iran (and, presumably, any other fundamentalist Islamic society). Among the film's sins are a character who is a prostitute, a child talking back to his mother, and a woman who removes her head scarf to reveal that she has shaved off all her hair in an act of self-flagellation and despair after being jilted by her fiance.

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