Tehran Taxi

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Review of 'Ten', director Abbas Kiarostami

'Ten' is the latest film by Abbas Kiarostami, one of the many talented Iranian directors making their mark on world cinema. Kiarostami has received critical acclaim for a number of his past films, and is a previous winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes. I doubt he will repeat the same triumph with Ten, but nevertheless this latest offering is a revealing social insight into modern day Iran.

The film focuses on a driver (the compelling Mania Akbari) and her passengers over the course of ten brief journeys. Akbari holds this film together, laughing, questioning, supporting and arguing with her various travellers. Akbari's most frequent passenger is her young son, a very demanding child, at times playful but more often than not barking orders at his mother. These exchanges are intense and aggressive, and make for painful viewing. Central to this relationship and to the whole film is the rights of women. Akbari is a divorced woman who does not sit at home, and cook and clean for her menfolk. This certainly causes a great deal of distress for her controlling son and her ex-husband as she struggles to achieve her own personal freedom, particularly through the sphere of work.

Akbari's other encounters are all with women, including a pious elder on her twice-daily pilgrimage to a Muslim saint's mausoleum, a friend who is in emotional turmoil because her lover has left her, and a somewhat implausible incident with a prostitute. The latter encounter is dark and brooding, and Kiarostami intensifies this scene through his use of light (or the lack of it). The prostitute tells Akbari of her dealings with married men and the lies they tell their wives. No doubt her clients include a number of the Islamic clerics who have held power over the past 20 years. Layered over these stories is Akbari's frustrations over finding parking spaces and dealing with the problems of Iranian traffic. This certainly adds a realistic dimension to the film and brings the stories down to earth.

Visually the film is not so strong. The viewer only has two viewpoints, both of which are from the dashboard of the vehicle. One is a shot of the passenger and the other of the driver. This offers a very minimalist approach to film-making. At times the results are engaging, and we can see the emotional stresses endured by each character. However, given the dialogue's heavy script, I think the film would have been much stronger with some shots of Iran itself. This would have provided a brief and welcome relief from the intense conversations. Furthermore, the lack of any other visual perspectives meant that the film could have been shot in Beirut, Cairo or Baghdad. There is no indication of the film's location, though I presume it was Tehran.

This weakness also highlights one of 'Ten's strengths. The characters struggle with a range of universal emotions and issues including divorce, sexuality, work, childhood, religion and sex. The problems and dilemmas for Kiarostami's characters are not unique to the women of Iran. We come to the conclusion that Iranian and Islamic society is not that much different from other societies around the world, including the West. So much for the clash of civilisations!